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grantland_feed July 29 2014, 17:04

Spoon Feed the Beast



Three years ago, I devised a sort of interesting, sort of ludicrous rubric for determining musical greatness called the Five-Albums Test, which rewards artists who are able to sustain excellence over the course of five consecutive records.1 Many of the artists you would expect to be classified as “great” pass the Five-Albums Test. The Beatles obviously make it. So do Led Zeppelin, Al Green, the Talking Heads, Pavement, and Kanye West. But the Five-Albums Test also flunks out a lot of geniuses. The Rolling Stones, for instance, never put out five great records in a row.2 Nor did Bob Dylan or Guided by Voices.3 Now, you could say this is based on subjective opinion, and any rubric that declares the Stones, Dylan, and GBV as not great is clearly flawed. And I would agree, as the Stones, Dylan, and GBV are my three favorite musical acts of all time. Frankly, the Five-Albums Test pisses me off sometimes, and I’m the one who invented it. But the Five-Albums Test is unforgiving in that way.

I would liken the Five-Albums Test to the concept of dynasties in sports. It’s natural for sports fans to differentiate between great teams that win one championship and great teams that win multiple championships in a row. Even if a team has a historically dominant season (like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens), that is not considered to be as impressive as winning out over several seasons, even if the victories themselves are less decisive (like the Patriots teams of the early ’00s).

In pop, however, flashes of brilliance can overshadow yeomanlike consistency — it’s sexier to be Nirvana or Joy Division than it is to be Wilco or the Cure. The point of the Five-Albums Test was to recognize artists that might sell a modest number of records and generally garner really good reviews, without ever being considered the best artists of their time. Often, a career of putting out records like Summerteeth and Disintegration is valued less than having a singular, paradigm-shifting masterpiece like Nevermind or Unknown Pleasures. The reliably great somehow becomes the enemy of the undeniably classic. This is what the Five-Albums Test was intended to address. It is weighted in favor of the yeomans.

Though I didn’t make up the Five-Albums Test with Spoon specifically in mind, there might not be a band better suited for it.

Between 1998’s Series of Sneaks and 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon put out five albums, basically every other year. All of them are different, and all of them are great in different ways. These records represent a true arc, starting with the jacked-up neo-psychedelic post-punk of Series of Sneaks and concluding with the “white-dude dance-rock band that occasionally sounds like Billy Joel” guise of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The albums in between are difficult to describe in the terms normally delineated for describing music. They don’t really fit with any genre or trend associated with ’00s rock, though Spoon in retrospect seems more representative of indie ’00s-ness than any of its contemporaries. I could, again, break these LPs down into reference points — let’s begin with Motown, Wire’s Pink Flag, Elvis Costello, and “Emotional Rescue,” just for kicks — but that’s not nearly as evocative as it needs to be. The typical Spoon song might have a James Jamerson bass line, a Bruce Gilbert guitar lick, stinging This Year’s Model–style lyrical asides, and a gritty, Jaggeresque vocal, but those elements will be deconstructed, dubbed onto a cassette of questionable fidelity, and then reassembled slightly out of order.

This isn’t working. Let’s try this: Imagine walking into your living room in the morning and noticing that each piece of furniture has been moved one foot to the left. The room still contains elements that feel homey and familiar, and yet the overall feng shui is disorienting. You might not love it at first glimpse but a week later you notice that the image of that room is still in your head. Ten years later, you can’t recall this arrangement ever troubling you. That’s what those Spoon records are like.

What’s notable about Spoon is that A Series of Sneaks, 2001’s Girls Can Tell, 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, 2005’s Gimme Fiction, and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, as a body of work, is generally better regarded than any of the component parts are on their own. There is empirical evidence for this: In 2009, the critical aggregation site Metacritic declared Spoon “our top overall artists of the decade,” based on an average album “Metascore” of 85.3. Two groups scored higher than Spoon, but Spoon was given the edge because it put out four highly rated albums vs. three each for Sleater-Kinney (which otherwise scored an 86.3) and Outkast (which scored an 86.0). (Apparently, Metacritic subscribes to the less rigorous Four-Albums Test.)

Looking over Metacritic’s yearly lists, the highest-ranking Spoon album is Kill the Moonlight, which came in fourth on the 2002 list. Spoon performed similarly on The Village Voice’s comprehensive annual critics poll Pazz & Jop, though there it was Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga that ranked highest, coming in seventh in 2007. (Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight didn’t appear in P&J’s top 40 for their respective years.) Otherwise, each Spoon LP lurks back in the low 20s to no. 30 on the annual Metacritic lists — critics always liked Spoon albums, but never ecstatically. And yet over the long haul, Spoon was the band that emerged from the pack. It was acclaim by way of attrition.

The polls only measure critical opinion, but I think it translates to how Spoon is perceived more broadly. It is a band that people appreciate in the long term and take for granted in the short term. With a new Spoon album, They Want My Soul, set for release next week, I think it’s time for us to stop doing this.

Spoon first teased They Want My Soul in March with a video of an oscilloscope, and later in May with a cryptic message posted across its social media platforms. Written in white text against a black background, it read simply “R.I.P.” It was subsequently revealed that “R.I.P.” referred to “Rent I Pay,” the album’s quintessentially Spoonian opening track — simultaneously retro and postmodern, it’s a dense yet immediate tangle of trebly guitar slashes, booming drum echoes, and vaguely menacing lyrical references to insomnia and backward masking. You’ll want to play it 50 times to maximize its pleasures and figure out what the hell it means.

I suspect that “R.I.P.” may have also been a sly joke about Spoon’s perpetual underdog status. They Want My Soul is Spoon’s first album in four years. The band’s previous LP, 2010’s Transference, seemed to signal an end to Spoon’s five-album hot streak. I’ve come to like Transference more than I did initially, but it’s definitely an “after” record — the bruised and battered arrangements and drawn-out, zombified instrumental outros convey a feeling of late-night, post-party exhaustion that may or may not be intentional.

It’s my sense that Spoon’s base of popular and critical support had also grown a little tired in Transference’s wake. I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel this way, as the album actually did really well with music writers. (It has a Metacritic score of 80.) I could be projecting, since I was pretty blasé about Transference in spite of loving Spoon’s previous records. But I don’t think I am, based on how They Want My Soul has already been received.

In June, Britt Daniel and Jim Eno appeared on NPR to discuss They Want My Soul in depth for the first time. The hosts enthused that Spoon had “rediscovered an energy, passion, and inspired sound” on Soul; the headline for the web version of the story declared that the band was “learning to loosen up.” Transference wasn’t slagged by name, though by implication it was an album of slack energy, diminished passion, tired sound, and general tight-assiness. In a way, I don’t disagree with this assessment, because I enjoy They Want My Soul more than Transference. But I also think I’m supposed to enjoy They Want My Soul more. A lusher and more luminous record, Soul radiates delight like Transference exudes weariness.

After listening to Soul several times, I’ve come to hear it as the morning to Transference’s night. Both records are more concerned with sound than songs, which are made even less tangible by Daniel’s nonlinear lyrics. (The exceptions are “Do You,” a love song set to jangly guitars and handclaps, and the exuberant “Let Me Be Mine,” which is the closest Soul gets to delivering another “The Way We Get By.”) On Transference, the central instrument was Daniel’s wounded guitar; on Soul, it’s new member Alex Fischel’s keyboards, which wash beautifully over the fractured narratives about crooked gurus and stubborn love affairs rattling “Outlier” and “Inside Out” like a seductive, spectral fog. These songs don’t sound like a break from Transference, but rather like a logical next step.

While the NPR segment presented They Want My Soul as a creative “reset,” Daniel pivoted slightly in the interview, suggesting that Spoon’s hiatus was more about heeding the market than creative concerns.

“Between 2001 and 2010, we put out five records, which is not a lot by ’60s standards. But in terms of today’s standards, it’s pretty fast,” he said. “I mean, especially since concert promoters run the business now. And that’s the way you make money, is doing shows, you know? So we just needed a break.”

Fatigue is a real though impossible-to-quantify factor in determining not just media coverage but popular taste. It’s a weird curse to be so good for so long that your audience starts to get bored with you, but after Transference, Spoon was uniquely susceptible to this problem. Just as writers eventually run out of insight on a particular artist, audiences get antsy.

As music fans, we’re conditioned to look at careers in terms of Behind the Music–style peaks and valleys — an artist we believe is brilliant will at some point suck. Follow an artist long enough, and you start to see suckage even when it’s not really there. Artists have internalized this perception, and it affects how they end up talking about their latest work. Sometimes, a solid if unspectacular effort like Transference will be construed into a “suck point,” so that the next record can be sold as a “redemption” record. (I refer to this as “His Best Album Since Blood on the Tracks” Syndrome.)4

What sets They Want My Soul apart from past Spoon records is that it’s the first to have a media-friendly narrative. Typically, well-regarded albums have a backstory, which describes how the record was made and/or the circumstances that inspired the writing of the songs. The “heartbroken guy decamps to Northwoods cabin and makes beautiful music” mythos of the first Bon Iver record is an obvious example. They might also have a side or parallel story, which juxtaposes what the artist signifies in the media with larger cultural issues. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange exemplifies this phenomenon; Ocean coming out right before the album’s release undeniably impacted how that record was received in an overwhelmingly positive way.

Spoon records usually don’t have narratives. The only story is, “Hey, here’s another Spoon record that’s really good; you’ll like it if you like Spoon records.” Soul is different — it’s a “comeback” album, a real “they took a break and now they’re reinvigorated” masterwork. In reality, it’s merely another Spoon record that’s really good, and you’ll like it if you like Spoon records. The narrative is new, but the song remains the same. 

gmpuzzles July 29 2014, 16:40

Sudoku by Thomas Snyder



Sudoku by Thomas Snyder


Theme: Four Arrows

Author/Opus: This is the 185th puzzle from Thomas Snyder, aka Dr. Sudoku.

Rules: Standard Sudoku rules.

Answer String: Enter the 5th row from left to right, followed by a comma, followed by the 5th column from top to bottom.

Time Standards (highlight to view): Grandmaster = 2:30, Master = 3:45, Expert = 7:30

Note: Follow this link for other classic Sudoku. If you are new to this puzzle type, here are our easiest Sudoku to get started on.

The post Sudoku by Thomas Snyder appeared first on The Art of Puzzles.

grantland_feed July 29 2014, 15:34

All Work and No Play for J.J. Watt



It all started as a joke. That’s what Taylor Jannsen thought, at least. Jannsen lives with an old friend in his hometown of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, in a two-bedroom, third-floor walk-up of an apartment building about five miles from town. He’s 25, a basketball personal trainer and coach just getting his business off the ground. It’s postcollege living at its purest: 1,000 square feet, beige appliances about his age, wall-to-wall carpet, and a pair of recliners in front of the TV. So when J.J. Watt mentioned he might want to crash on Jannsen’s floor, he didn’t take it seriously.

A few days later this spring, the Texans’ superstar defensive end was knocking at the door of apartment 3A, carrying a mattress and not much else.

Jannsen doesn’t know why he was surprised. He’s known Watt for the better part of a decade. A spot on the floor at the Manor5 gave Watt exactly what he wanted: a place to sleep while he wasn’t working out. Twice a day, Watt drove the 10 minutes to the gym he’s visited since he was 16, a place called NX Level, in a business park next to a machinery company. Watt’s parents live only a few minutes from the Manor. They thought his move home would mean seeing their son for dinner almost every night; they barely saw him once a week.

Suburban Wisconsin became Watt’s version of Rocky’s Siberia. The only traces of him were half a closet of button-down shirts, three printer-paper boxes of belongings, and a few pairs of size-19 chukkas and sneakers thrown in a corner. It was everything he needed.

“If you’re an outsider looking into my life, you’re thinking, That dude is crazy. He’s literally crazy,” Watt says.

Click here for more from our 2014 NFL preview.

Watt’s routine has always been maniacal, but the pains of last season are what pushed him to a spartan existence. Calling Watt’s 2012 season historic doesn’t do his performance justice. In his second year, he finished with a league-best 20.5 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, and 56 defeats — the highest total in the 17-year history of the stat. He was named Defensive Player of the Year, and many believed he was the league’s rightful MVP. It was a type of dominance not seen since the days of Lawrence Taylor.

Repeating that was going to be next to impossible, but Watt came closer last year than most think. He was again a first-team All-Pro and could still lay claim to the title of best defensive player alive, but after three months without a win, blame becomes a virus. “When you’re 2-14,” Watt says, “you have moments of doubt.”

That’s why Watt is here, on this Wednesday in mid-June, having just finished another workout at NRG Stadium.6 As he sits down at a table in a half-lit room used for press conferences, his gray sleeveless T-shirt is soaked through with sweat. Four drinks — two waters and two small protein shakes — sit in front of him. It’s the Texans’ day off.

He’s here for the same reason that mattress was on the floor — because doubt was an unwelcome guest he would rather never see again.

“When it comes down to that moment,” Watt says, “when it’s me against you, you know in your head whether you worked hard enough. You can try to lie to yourself. You can try to tell yourself that you put in the time. But you know — and so do I.”

If the Texans would have had their way in 2011, Watt wouldn’t be in Houston. The plan with the 11th pick was to take an outside linebacker, someone who would ease the transition to Wade Phillips’s 3-4 defense. But when the linebacker options were off the board, Phillips offered up a contingency plan: If a quality defensive lineman was around, they could move former no. 1 overall pick Mario Williams to outside linebacker. There were two choices, with the room split nearly down the middle. Eventually, they landed on Watt.

Out of high school, Watt chose to play tight end at Central Michigan, but after only one season, concerns about the Chippewas’ spread offense and a lifelong affinity for the Badgers pushed him to walk on at Wisconsin. That meant going back on his promise that his parents wouldn’t have to pay for college. They agreed to take on tuition for his first year, but with one condition. “I said, ‘OK, fine. We’ll pay, but you have to treat every practice like it’s your Super Bowl,’” says his father, John. Watt obliged. During his mandatory redshirt year, his relentlessness earned the highest honor a scout team player can have from a team’s starters: disdain. “They didn’t like me very much,” he says. The move to defensive line was seamless. He was gifted, a prodigy. In two seasons, “J.J. Watt” went from some walk-on to the name being chanted at Camp Randall Stadium in the waning moments of Wisconsin’s last home game. 

The start of his rookie season was unspectacular — some scattered sacks but little pointing to what we see now. “Some of it was us,” Phillips says, laughing. It took Phillips about 15 weeks to learn the same lesson Watt’s coaches had in Madison. The only way to unleash J.J. Watt is by letting him break the rules.

One of Watt’s favorite moves is one he calls the jab-and-go.7 It typically starts with him lining up just outside of a guard. In Phillips’s one-gap defense, that space between the guard and tackle is Watt’s responsibility. The standard way players are taught to control that gap is by firing into it just as the ball is snapped, to claim that space with the most speed and authority possible. Every so often, Watt will eschew those lessons. Instead, he takes a step inside, momentarily leaving him and the defense vulnerable. “If it works, you’re giving up your gap for a brief second to gain an advantage in getting back in your gap more effectively,” Watt says. “If it doesn’t, you’re giving up your gap, and you’re also blocked, so now there’s one gap unaccounted for.” Usually, it leaves a guard so off-balance that he has to catch his footing just to keep from falling on his face.

When Phillips first saw Watt try the maneuver, 35 years of NFL practices set off alarms in his head. “The first time you see it, you think about the old coaching adage, ‘You never go around the block,’” Phillips says. “Well, you do when you can make the play.” Coaches refer to these plays as calculated risks, and what Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar soon realized is that Watt’s were more calculated than most. Because Watt watches so much film, he has an ironclad grasp on what plays to expect out of formations. Because he was quicker, he could recover faster. Because he has the best hands in the league, he could shed blockers more easily.

This is what makes Watt special. His genius comes by way of subversion. He is allowed to look down his scarred nose at defensive line conventions only because he’s mastered them.

Trust from the coaching staff is what allows Watt to chase plays, and by the end of his first season, he felt like he had it. Houston’s final game — a loss to the Ravens in the divisional round — was his best of the year. His 2.5 sacks were nearly half what he’d compiled the entire regular season. He finished with 12 tackles, nine on his own. “That springboarded me into the offseason, into the next season,” Watt says.

In nearly four decades of pro football, Phillips has been lucky enough to coach some of the best pass-rushers ever. He had five years with Bruce Smith in Buffalo. He coached Reggie White for three in Philadelphia. Before arriving in Houston, he oversaw the prime of DeMarcus Ware’s career with the Cowboys. “Two years ago was the best defensive line play in the history of football,” Phillips says. “He had more tackles, blocked passes, pressures on the quarterback. The conglomeration of all that was the best that anybody has ever played. I’ve had some great ones, but they’ve never made that many great plays in one year.”

The gap between greatness and fame is measured in time. Achieving greatness may be a process, but fame comes all at once. Becoming a great player took J.J. Watt years. Becoming a famous one took a single play.

With a minute left in the first half of the wild-card round against the Bengals after the 2011 regular season, Andy Dalton dropped back to pass on first down. As Watt realized he couldn’t get to the quarterback, he opted for what has since become his signature — stop, raise his arms, jump. This time, instead of ricocheting to the turf or caroming to a cornerback, the ball landed right in Watt’s massive hands. Twenty-nine unmanned yards sat between him and the end zone. The touchdown gave Houston a 17-10 lead. They were the last points the Texans would need for their first postseason win in franchise history.

Baltimore Ravens v Houston Texans

“That was the moment,” Watt says. “That was when whatever this is now started.”

The next day, Watt and his family drove the hour to Galveston for a day at the beach. As he and his brothers threw a Frisbee around, a few people approached with congratulations. By the time they left, more than 100 people had gathered at the seawall. Someone had tweeted that he was there.

There’s a tradition at Packers training camp that Watt remembers from when he was young. As the team walks across the street from Lambeau to the practice field, local boys and girls hand over their bikes for players to ride. Watt craved to be one of those kids, but really, he craved to be one of those Packers. They were gods to him.

He does his best to hold on to that feeling. In June, a nearby high school held its graduation at NRG Stadium. Seeing the students lined up against one wall, Watt worked his way down the hallway, popping his head out of every door along the way, each time to shrieks. “We take this for granted so often,” Watt says. “I can open up a door and someone goes crazy. Why wouldn’t I take advantage of that?”

Watt’s sincerity about kids never sounds contrived, in part because of how he looks. The 6-foot-5 and nearly 300-pound hulk makes it tough to imagine him ever being a child (somehow, he looks bigger out of pads), but it’s still there in his face. Save for the divot on his nose, it’s boyish.

That’s where the playfulness ends. The first time Charlie Partridge, Watt’s defensive line coach at Wisconsin, met him, he had only one thought: That’s a very, very serious young man. At times, the approach makes relating to his peers a struggle. His longtime trainer, Brad Arnett, tells a story about when Watt and a few Badgers teammates were working out at NX Level. The others were talking about a bar in Madison, one of those spots so established it might as well be a stop at freshman orientation. When they asked Watt what he thought of the place, he didn’t have an answer. He’d never been. How, they kept asking, is that possible? “You want to know how?” Watt snapped back. “I was too busy becoming a first-round pick.”

Watt can’t eat out much anymore anyway, but there is one restaurant, a steakhouse near his home in Pearland, that he still hits every so often. They have a system. He parks in the back, slides past the storage area, and slinks in through the kitchen. On a busy night, the owner will set up a curtain in the back. “I don’t feel like I’m entitled,” Watt says. “It’s just so I can sit down and have a meal with family and friends in town.”

That became a challenge about midway through 2012. Watt’s parents were in town, eating at a Mexican restaurant near his house. “As we walked out, you could kind of hear the noise building outside as we were leaving the restaurant,” says Watt’s father, John. “There were clearly a lot of people.” A ring of nearly 50 bodies had gathered in the parking lot. On the way toward the car, a girl in her twenties, boyfriend in tow, leaped onto Watt and wrapped herself around him. She was crying. “I had to peel her off him,” Watt’s mother, Connie, says. “I turn around, and another girl passes out!”

Elvis moments make for good stories, but eventually, Watt’s local fame crept into his daily life. Trips to the grocery store that once lasted 30 minutes now took two hours. The Texans urged him to hire an assistant, and finally he relented. Now, Emily does his food shopping twice a week — first for the essentials (egg whites, milk, turkey) and once more for any last-minute cravings. “It sounds so prima donna, but it’s literally for convenience because it would take too long to grocery-shop on my own,” Watt says. She also handles the post office, the dry cleaner, whatever he needs.

The only trip left for him is the one between home and the stadium. “You can find me one of two places,” Watt says. It’s about a half-hour drive to Pearland. Watt’s lived there since his rookie year, in a house he bought from a family of five. Before they moved, the owner asked Connie if she wanted to keep what was up on the walls. She did. Otherwise, “he would have a toothbrush, a pan to make his eggs, and a couple glasses,” Connie says.

Watt has never been quick to make friends. “He’s not the type of person who meets someone and after two weeks says, ‘This guy’s my buddy,’” John says. “It takes a while to get close to J.J.” The week after Memorial Day, they noticed the remnants of a party from the weekend. There’s a hint of relief in John’s voice as he remembers it.

“I barely know one person outside of the organization,” Watt says. “It’s just so hard, because everyone wants something. Everyone wants an autograph, a picture. I can’t go out to a bar and meet John Smith. ‘Hey, we should go out some time, John. Want to play some shuffleboard?’ I can’t do that.”

When Watt needs a human moment, he finds it with the Berrys. During the lockout, someone tweeted him a story about three siblings — Peter, Aaron, and Willa Berry — whose parents had died in a car crash. Two of them were left paralyzed from the waist down. Watt visited them in the hospital, and they’ve stayed in touch ever since. The kids live with their aunt and uncle now, and there’s always a home-cooked meal and some perspective waiting for Watt when he needs it.

But Watt spends most of his time alone. He’s tried dating, but it tends to end the same way, with him admitting he can’t give a relationship the time and focus it deserves.

“I’m used to it,” Watt says of solitude. “For me, it’s kind of what I need. It’s hard to understand the life that I live and rationalize some of the things that I do. I don’t need someone questioning every move that I make, asking me why I don’t just relax. When there’s no one asking me those types of questions … to me, it’s peaceful.”

In the span of four days last summer, both John and Connie Watt left their longtime jobs. John retired after 35 years as a fireman, Connie after 23 as the vice-president of a building inspection company. She now runs her son’s foundation, but as John says, “her boss is pretty lenient on travel.” The newfound free time means more stays in Houston, but last year that wasn’t always pleasant.

The week Houston hosted the Colts, the Watts and a few family friends had come down for the game. It was the Texans’ sixth straight loss. Watt was no longer hiding his irritation. “[At home], he was right through the front door, through the kitchen, into his bedroom,” John says. “The door would close, and you wouldn’t see him until it was time to come out and get something to eat.” It was supposed to be an extended stay, but by Monday, Connie was looking for flights home. “You could just kind of tell, maybe this isn’t a good week for us to be down here,” she says.

Watt had never lost at anything, and the confusion about how to cope was fueled by how close Houston seemed to winning in each game. “The worst part was that every single week, I thought we were going to win, until the very last week,” he says. “Every single week.”

Houston was bad enough to land the no. 1 pick, which it spent on Jadeveon Clowney. Despite its need at quarterback, people saw pairing Clowney — considered a rare pass-rushing talent — with Watt as a way to build one of the most frightening defensive fronts in memory.

“I haven’t really thought about it at all,” Watt says of his new teammate. “What I told him when he got drafted was, ‘Listen, I don’t care what people have said about you before. I don’t care about what you’re going to do. I’m basing everything I see on what I see with my own two eyes: how hard you work, how much you study. I’m going to be an open book.’

“Now, I can’t make anybody learn. I can’t make a guy work hard. I can’t make him come in and do extra work. But if he wants it, I’m here.”

It was also the type of season that costs people jobs. Head coach Gary Kubiak was gone by early December. Phillips followed a month later. Replacing him is Romeo Crennel, who, like new head coach Bill O’Brien, is a branch off the Bill Belichick coaching tree. Crennel runs a 3-4, too, just a much more conservative version, in which players are often tasked with controlling rather than attacking. Watt’s line coach, Bill Kollar, survived the transition, but Phillips hopes the rest of the new staff realizes what they have faster than he did. “They just need to let him play,” Phillips says. “You can’t box him in.”


There are only two shows in rotation on Watt’s DVR. He loves Modern Family, and although he hesitates to admit it, because “it’s kinda girlie,” he’s a fan of Nashville. He was drawn in by Connie Britton — he’s watched every episode of Friday Night Lights. Twice. “The fact that that show didn’t get more credit blows my mind,” Watt says.

He and Michael B. Jordan, the star of Friday Night Lights’ final two seasons, exchange texts every so often. They met at a dinner party in Los Angeles made up almost entirely of celebrities. It’s a world Watt discovered after his rookie year, through his reps at CAA. He doesn’t name names, but mom and dad aren’t so tight-lipped. One party was at Kate Hudson’s house; Katy Perry and John Mayer were there, too. He’s met Leo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. When he first started going to these parties, Watt was the new guy, politely introduced by the host to the rest of the guests. His second season changed that.

“They were walking up to me, introducing themselves,” Watt says. “It was crazy. There are people out there that I never, ever thought would know who I am.”

Excess is rare for Watt, but he uses L.A. as a free pass for lavishness. He rents a Ferrari, stays at the Ritz. Elsewhere, he’s frugal in the way befitting a child of middle-class Wisconsin. When he does spend, he spends on travel. Since his rookie year, he’s footed the bill for an offseason trip with 10 friends every year. This February it was Cabo San Lucas. “It’s a time for me to just be J.J., and not have to be J.J. Watt,” he says.

That trip is where the idea to crash at the Manor started. “I think that’s why he did this, to be honest with you,” Jannsen says. “Instead of living in a fancy hotel, I think he just wanted to be him again. Where he just hangs out with his buddies, jokes around, screams at the TV playing video games.” The game of choice was FIFA 14. There was an apartment-wide tournament, replete with standings tallied on the back of a Nike shoe box. They called it the MPL — Manor Premier League. Watt played with Chelsea. He won.

Watt’s father says that March and April were a chance to capture the college life his son had ignored in Madison, but the reason Watt knew his mattress would be worth it is the connection he and Jannsen share.

The two would spend evenings talking about books, like Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, which explains the factors that create greatness. As Watt tells me about Coyle’s book, he eagerly leans forward in his chair. It outlines three main elements: deep practice, master coaching, and ignition. The first two are easy to understand for a world-class athlete.

Ignition is “that moment of motivation,” Watt says. “What makes you do what you do?” That moment is what people have started to wonder about Watt. After winning Defensive Player of the Year, after a two-year stretch rivaling any in NFL history, they’ve asked how he still manages to find it.

“The way I look at it is that somebody in the world, no matter what your field is — teacher, violinist, football player — has to be the best,” Watt says. “Why not me? If I dedicate all my time, if I cut out all the other crap from my life, if I give everything I have to this game for 10 or 12 years, maybe it is. And when I’m done, I’ll go sit on my front porch with my buddies, have a beer, and say, ‘That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?’”

Those are reflections for another time, though, he says. Right now, his four bottles are empty, and his shirt is almost dry. Morning has turned to afternoon, and it’s time to take the familiar stretch of road home. His off day is almost over. And he has work tomorrow. 

Photo illustration by Gluekit.

freak_onomics July 29 2014, 13:08

สมัครสมาชิก Royal1688 “เวนเกอร์” ยิ้มได้ “แฟร์มาเลน” คัมแบ็ก



สมัครสมาชิก Royal1688

สมัครสมาชิก Royal1688 อาร์แซน เวนเกอร์ กุนซือเมืองน้ำหอมของ “ปืนใหญ่” อาร์เซนอล ออกมาแสดงความเห็นถึง โทมัส แฟร์มาเลน กองหลังชาวเบลเยียม ที่หายจากอาการบาดเจ็บและกลับมาช่วยเสริมความแกร่งในแนวรับของทีม หลังเจ้าตัวประสบปัญหาเจ็บหลังรบกวนจนต้องพักแข้งยาวมาก่อนหน้านี้

แข้งวัย 27 ปี เพิ่งหายจากอาการบาดเจ็บหลังที่ทำให้ต้องพักแข้งยาว และกลับมาเรียกความฟิตติดรายชื่อตัวสำรองนัด “ปืนโต” ลงฟาดแข้งกับ ซันเดอร์แลนด์ ในสังเวียนพรีเมียร์ ลีก เมื่อเสาร์ ที่ 14 กันยายน ที่ผ่านมา อีกทั้งยังกลับมาเพิ่มตัวเลือกให้ เวนเกอร์ ได้เรียกใช้เพื่ออุดช่องโหว่ในแดนหลัง

สมัครสมาชิก Holiday ยอดเทรนเนอร์แห่งถิ่น เอมิเรตส์ สเตเดียม เปิดเผยผ่านเว็ปไซต์ของสโมสรว่า “เขา (แฟร์มาเลน) เป็นผู้เล่นที่ยืนตำแหน่งกองหลังได้ดี และทำหน้าที่ได้อย่างยอดเยี่ยม ผมต้องการปราการหลังที่เล่นได้ทั้งเท้าซ้าย และเท้าขวา นั่นเป็นเหตุผลหนึ่งที่ผมต้องการเลือกใช้ โทมัส”

“ผมคิดว่าเขาเป็น เซ็นเตอร์แบ็ก ฝีเท้าเยี่ยมคนหนึ่ง ที่มากความสามารถ เพียบพร้อมและมีทักษะเฉพาะตัวที่น่าทึ่ง โดยเฉพาะประสบการณ์ในจังหวะอ่านเกมที่เขามักทำได้เฉียบขาดเสมอ เขาเป็นนักเตะที่ดี แต่ก็ต้องยอมรับว่า บาการี ซานญา ก็เป็นอีกหนึ่งคู่แข่งของเขา ซึ่งทำหน้าที่ได้ดีในทุกๆ เกมที่ผ่านมา และโชว์ผลงานได้เป็นที่น่าพอใจ ทำให้วางใจได้ว่าตอนนี้ว่าเรามีแนวรับที่ยอดเยี่ยม”

ทั้งนี้ แพร์ แมร์เตซัคเกอร์ และ โลรองต์ กอสเซียลนี ก็เป็นอีกสองเซ็นเตอร์ แบ็ก ทางเลือกของ เฮดโค้ชวัย 63 ปี ที่จะส่งลงทำหน้าที่รับใช้สโมสรต้นสังกัด ในนัดที่จะลงฟาดแข้งกับ มาร์กเซย ในศึก ยูฟา แชมเปียนส์ ลีก คืนวันพุธที่ 18 กันยายน นี้

The post สมัครสมาชิก Royal1688 “เวนเกอร์” ยิ้มได้ “แฟร์มาเลน” คัมแบ็ก appeared first on Casino Online and Sports Betting.

grantland_feed July 29 2014, 13:04

Kyle Korver: An Offense Unto Himself



As the second round of the 2003 draft puttered along, the Nets watched as teams ahead of them plucked every player in which New Jersey had interest. The team, fresh off an Atlantic Division win and an appearance in the NBA Finals, was so low on cash, it considered selling the pick to finance its summer league team.

With none of their preferred choices on the board, the Nets brass selected Creighton forward Kyle Korver with the 51st pick — and immediately sold his draft rights to the Sixers for $125,000. That covered summer league. With the leftover cash, the Nets bought a new copy machine.

New Jersey thus became the first in a long line of teams that have underestimated Korver and live with regret as he continues to improve well into his thirties. Korver’s development into a borderline star has surprised everyone, even the 33-year-old swingman, and the journey will reach its latest peak this week when he competes for one of 12 precious roster spots on the U.S. team heading to the FIBA World Cup.

“We gave away a good player for summer league,” says Rod Thorn, the Nets GM at the time. “It was just one of those things we had to do. At least, that’s how I rationalized it.”

Korver is an antique perfectly suited to thrive at the forefront of the league’s evolution. He is among a dying breed who sprint around screens away from the ball, Reggie Miller–style, hoist quick catch-and-shoot jumpers, and sink enough of them to make the advanced math work. “Nobody plays that way anymore,” says Steve Clifford, the Hornets’ coach. “Game-planning for him is such a handful.”

But Korver’s shooting and ability to read the floor make him an ideal fit within a league that jacks more 3s and requires more movement on both ends — changes the league helped generate through rule changes. “The game over the last four or five years has become so much more suited to the way he plays today,” says Jerry Sloan, who coached Korver in Utah.

He’s developed into a smart passer with some off-the-bounce juice, and he moves around so much on offense, often outside the game plan, that he sometimes annoys the Atlanta coaching staff. He’s a plus off-ball defender, his head always on a swivel, watching every player on the floor without losing track of his guy. In Atlanta, Korver has found the perfect coach and system to leverage his unmatched shooting in new and adventurous ways.

“He was a huge priority for us,” says Danny Ferry, who drew some criticism for re-signing Korver last summer to a four-year, $24 million deal. “No matter what direction our summer was going, he was a part of what we were building here.”

Multiple current GMs say passing on Korver in the draft ranks as one of the worst mistakes of their respective careers. Maurice Cheeks, Korver’s last coach in Philadelphia, still remembers driving into the Sacramento arena parking lot in late 2007 when Ed Stefanski, then Philly’s GM, called to tell him the Sixers were dealing the Californian (by way of Iowa). Cheeks could summon only one word, he says: “Why? Why? Why?”

The Sixers needed to open both cap space and minutes for Thaddeus Young, Stefanski recalls. Still, dealing Korver wasn’t easy. He was already among the league’s best shooters and a beloved figure in the Philadelphia community, where Korver had started a foundation to benefit inner-city kids. “Our community relations manager was literally in tears when I told her,” Stefanski says. “And all the young girls in Philly wanted to kill me. Parents were coming up to me and saying I had traded their daughter’s favorite player.”

The Jazz finished 38-12 after landing Korver in exchange for Gordan Giricek and a first-round pick, but they let him walk to Chicago in free agency after drafting Gordon Hayward in 2010. “We loved him,” Sloan says, “but when we drafted Hayward, that cut down on his value here.”

Korver became a key second-unit cog in Chicago, but the Bulls traded him to Atlanta for nothing but a trade exception in July 2012. Cheeks ran into Tom Thibodeau in Las Vegas during summer league, and the two quickly found themselves chatting about Korver’s value — and of the lingering regret in having lost him, Cheeks says.

Korver averaged a career high in minutes per game last season and nailed a ridiculous 47.2 percent of his 3s. He received some All-Star consideration, though not as much as he should have, since he doesn’t dominate the ball. He makes great money — just about $45 million in his career to date — though he still gives a lot of it away to his father’s church and other charities, and he made the final 19-man list for Team USA tryouts this week. Korver is a big name now, and he can’t believe it.

“He was never one of those guys,” says Marcus Elliott, founder and director of the P3 Peak Performance Project in Santa Barbara, and the man Korver credits with helping save his career. “He was telling me recently, ‘But now I am one of those guys. I’m getting calls to do this and that. Team USA called me.’ It surprised the hell out of him.”

Budenholzer and Korver love basketball’s ballet of constant motion, and Budenholzer envisions a roster of 3-point bombers raining fire. He wants his players to suggest adjustments, and that meshes well with Korver’s nature as a restless tinkerer. “Every coach says they have an open-door policy,” Korver says. “Bud actually means it.”

It’s a telling contrast with Korver’s first season in Philly, when Randy Ayers, the team’s head coach, pushed Korver away from the 3-point arc. Ayers wanted his rookie to develop a midrange game and attack the basket before launching triples.

That changed when Philly fired Ayers and hired Jim O’Brien, late of the Celtics, before Korver’s second season in 2004-05. In the team’s very first practice, Allen Iverson ran a two-on-one fast break with Korver filling the wing. Iverson dished to Korver behind the 3-point arc. Korver took two dribbles, nailed a 17-footer, and waited for the applause.

O’Brien was livid. He screamed for Korver to look down at the 3-point line. O’Brien told him that if Korver ever passed up another open 3-pointer, he would remove him from the game. Korver remembers one thought flying through his head during O’Brien’s tirade: This is awesome.

Korver led the league in made 3s that season, establishing himself as perhaps the league’s deadliest shooter. But he would not be pigeonholed as a spot-up guy chilling in the corner. He liked moving too much for that. Korver grew up in Lakewood, a small town within Greater Los Angeles, and he fell in love with the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. “Everyone on that team was running, cutting, and passing,” Korver says. “To me, that’s still perfect basketball.”

He mastered the Miller and Ray Allen footwork of sprinting around picks, catching the ball at full speed, planting his feet, and rising for jumpers. He transformed Chicago’s offense that way. But he wanted to push himself further, and he found the perfect coaching staff for that in Atlanta.

The Hawks under Budenholzer are not going to pound the ball with isolations and stagnant pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor. Budenholzer wants to build a sort of Spurs East, with the ball whipping from side to side in an unguardable blur of passes, handoffs, and picks.

Budenholzer also understands that the very best shooters don’t necessarily maximize their value by standing around. Great shooters have a gravitational pull, and they can shift the range of that force around the floor as they move. A defense can go haywire if that force collides with another object — a teammate screening for Korver, or a defensive player suddenly realizing that Korver has drilled him in the back with a nasty pick.

No coach has unleashed the full breadth of Korver’s game like Budenholzer. Korver isn’t a traditional pick-and-roll player; he can’t dribble the ball 25 feet to the rim, juking dudes along the way. But Budenholzer has tailored a sort of hybrid species of pick-and-roll to his secret star — a high-speed curling action in which Korver takes a pitch or a handoff, probes the defense with a dribble or two, and makes the next pass from there:

Korver has added a floater to his game just for this type of action:

It doesn’t look like a pick-and-roll, but it functions like one. It’s even deadlier when the screeners are capable 3-point shooters, like Paul Millsap and Pero Antic. There are no right choices for the defense, only painful ones that are less bad than others.

Korver can punish any choice with his new-ish dribbling and passing skills. “He has evolved so much,” says Millsap, who also played with Korver in Utah. “He used to be a stand-in-the-corner guy. Now he’s putting the ball on the ground, hitting pull-ups. He’s such an underrated passer. His whole game is at another level.”

Learning new stuff this deep into an NBA career takes diligence. Korver devours film, and he and Quin Snyder, an Atlanta assistant last season, practiced for hours at getting Korver to slow down just a tick as he came rocketing off those picks — a small deceleration that allows Korver to map his passing options. Korver didn’t need to do that when he was just catching and shooting.

“Kyle’s unique in the sense that players his age who have had success aren’t usually open to trying new things,” says Snyder, now Utah’s head coach. “It makes them uncomfortable.”

Sloan agrees. “Most guys just stay the same after they’ve been in the league 10 years.”

Korver isn’t satisfied with his progress on these plays, but he knows he’ll be better at them than he ever would running pick-and-rolls in the style of a ball-dominant NBA point guard. “I’m not going to kill myself to get mediocre at that,” he says. “I want to find things I can be really good at in the system we run. Bud’s concept of what the pick-and-roll can be is a bit different — like, with me getting the ball on the run. And it can be really good for me.”

The Hawks rewarded Korver by designing funky new sets for him, including this doozy, in which he sets a down screen for an Atlanta big before U-turning into a handoff from a little guy posting up:

Atlanta fooled damn near the entire league with this play, and once it got into scouting reports, the Hawks drew up counters — some for Korver, and some in which he was a decoy:

No one is quite sure of the play’s origin, though Budenholzer and Korver think they worked it out over dinner and wine. “We have to figure out what bottle we were drinking,” Budenholzer jokes.

Korver loves sets like this because they let him move around. He sometimes surprises Budenholzer by breaking plays with cuts and picks he improvises. He just can’t stay still, even when a certain set calls for him to do so. “Bud is always getting mad at me when I move around,” Korver says. “I think he was just throwing me a bone with that play.”

“Sometimes it works out” when Korver moves in unexpected ways, Budenholzer says, “and sometimes, it’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ You end up with three guys standing right next to each other.”

Korver indeed loves to move. He traveled at least six feet in the second preceding the release of 61 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, the fifth-largest share of “moving” shots among the top 30 players in overall 3-point attempts, per data from SportVU tracking cameras provided exclusively to Grantland. He nailed 44.6 percent of those “moving” 3s, also fifth-best among those 30 guys.

Here’s the killer number: Korver shot 58 percent on “stationary 3s,” classified as any 3-point try on which he moved less than six feet in the final second before launch. That blew away the rest of those 30 players; Kyle Lowry ranked second, at 53 percent. A “stationary” Korver triple was worth about 1.75 points, making it only slightly less valuable than a layup.

That is insane. That is why defenses react to any Korver movement with sheer terror, and Budenholzer uses that terror against opponents in crunch time. Shelvin Mack nailed an easy floater on this out-of-bounds play in overtime against Cleveland after all five defenders, including Mack’s, tuned in to the Korver show:


The fear is real. The gurus at Stats LLC, the company behind the SportVU cameras, have developed two previously unreleased metrics designed to measure the amount of attention an offensive player gets from defenders when he doesn’t have the ball.

The first, dubbed “gravity score,” measures how often defenders are really guarding a particular player away from the ball. Korver had the fourth-highest score, behind only Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George. The second — “distraction score” — is a related attempt to measure how often a player’s defender strays away from him to patrol the on-ball action. Korver had the lowest such score in the league.8

“I underestimated how much attention he gets from defenses,” Budenholzer says. Korver is almost an offense unto himself. “You don’t appreciate it until you see it every day.”

Korver wouldn’t have anticipated it five years ago, either.

Korver arrived at P3 in Santa Barbara a half-decade ago with a ravaged left knee, some elbow pain, and a game that was slipping away.9 Elliott put Korver through three hours of tests in which Korver jumped on force plates, moved side to side, and executed other basketball-specific moves. Elliott measured the force that Korver put into cuts and jumps with his lower body, and the numbers were disturbing.

Korver had almost no oomph, and what oomph he had was isolated in his right leg. Korver had undergone surgery to remove a bone spur from behind his left kneecap, and though the injury had healed, he still wasn’t able to generate any momentum planting off his left foot.

“He was asymmetric,” Elliott says. “By NBA standards, he had a handicap.”

If he kept overstressing his right leg, Korver might have suffered an injury there or in a related location.

“I wasn’t sure where my career was going to go,” Korver says.

Elliott gradually retrained Korver’s body with exercises designed to strengthen his leg and improve his leaping and lunging mechanics. Korver would never jump high or run fast, but if he could start moving before his opponent and reach peak speed faster, he might eke out the tiny opening he needs to shoot.

“It’d be nice if he could jump 40 inches, but he can’t,” Elliott says.10 “But it’s not about how big he goes. It’s how quickly he can get there. If two guys both jump 36 inches, but one guy gets there faster, that guy has an advantage.”

Korver now ranks among the top 20 percent of Elliott’s basketball clients in terms of how fast he can generate force — both upward and side-to-side.

Elliott has never had a more committed NBA client, he says. Korver moved his family to Santa Barbara so he could live near P3, and Elliott has to bully Korver into taking at least some time off after the NBA season. Staying healthy takes more work as a player ages. A glaring flaw in body mechanics will manifest itself in an injury for most aging NBA players, Elliott says. “The 82-game NBA season is close to the threshold of what the human body can handle,” he says.

And Korver? He hasn’t missed significant time in four seasons, and the data shows he is a symmetrical player now — able to attack with equal strength on either side of the floor.

Physical and mental stamina in the gym aren’t enough. Korver’s off-court life — he’s married with one child and rarely parties — never interferes with his work. “He has great life skills,” Elliott says. “With some guys, you don’t know if they are going to show up on time. Maybe they’ll take a last-minute trip to the Bahamas with a girl they met last night. Kyle has none of that nonsense around him.”

Korver is also willing to test himself in unconventional ways. Elliott introduced him to misogi, the Japanese annual purification ritual some athletes have adapted into a once-a-year endurance challenge. Korver and Elliott stand-up paddled 25 miles from the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara last year. Korver may have one-upped himself with the misogi he did this summer.

Big-wave surfers build lung capacity by holding a large rock, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and running short distances on the ocean floor. Korver and four friends decided to go back to the Channel Islands, find an 85-pound rock, and run a collective 5K holding the thing underwater.11 Each participant would dive down, find the rock, run with it as long as he could, and drop it for the next guy to find. Those waiting their turn wore weight belts and tread in water between five and 10 feet deep.

It took five hours. “We were honestly worried about blacking out,” Korver says. They were also worried about sharks.12

“He wants to turn over every stone, and try every possible thing that might make him better — as a player and a person,” Elliott says.

Korver is hoping to make Team USA, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be happy to spend time with his family and resume what he views as a worthy long-term project in Atlanta. The Hawks struck out in free agency despite mammoth cap room and an intriguing nucleus, and Korver says players around the league don’t view Atlanta as a desirable place to play.

“There’s a bad perception around the franchise now,” Korver says. “But we’re gonna change that.”

Korver will try to keep still when Budenholzer wants and grow more comfortable with Atlanta’s defensive principles. Korver is a solid defender despite a reputation as a liability. His teams have generally defended at about the same level regardless of whether he’s on the floor, and the league’s emphasis on ball movement and shooting plays to his strengths on defense too.

Wing players in today’s NBA have to shift all over the floor as the opposing offense moves the ball, and Korver is always tugging in the right direction. He’s hyper-alert, glancing back and forth, computing what the eight players away from him are doing second by second without losing his guy.

He knows when to help from the weak side, when to stick with a corner shooter on the strong side, when to fake help, and when a crisis is afoot. His movement around the floor here is typical:

“He’s a really good team defender,” Budenholzer says.

He sees breakdowns as they happen, and slides an extra couple of steps into the paint:

“Wing players have to move more in today’s game,” says Clifford, the Hornets coach. “And if you watch the film, he’s always aware.”

Korver’s biggest weakness is probably that he helps too much, straying into the paint to snuff out a threat that isn’t so serious. “It’s similar to how he can’t stand still on offense,” Budenholzer says. “He just wants to be involved and help his teammates, and sometimes he over-helps.”

He’ll never be the kind of long-armed, explosive athlete who can work as a shutdown wing defender; there’s a reason Jarrett Jack is able to sink that triple over him in the above clip. But he’s worked hard to clean up his individual defense, with quick and precise footwork that can contain superior one-on-one players.

O’Brien, his former coach in Philadelphia, says Korver struggled as a defender early in his career, but O’Brien admires his improvement from afar. “If he needs to be somewhere on defense, he’ll be there, and he’ll be there 100 percent of the time.”

The Hawks still send Korver help against post-up threats, but they did so less often at the end of the season than at the start. Korver proved up to the challenge, and even when the matchup presented a real problem for him, he would get angry when the Hawks sent double-teams, Budenholzer says.

Korver is excited for what lies ahead in Atlanta. He’s glad he got in early during Budenholzer’s tenure. “Give us another year or two here,” he says. “It’s gonna be really good.” 

grantland_feed July 28 2014, 19:10

The Beginning and the End of History



On Saturday, the Toronto Blue Jays won a game in Yankee Stadium for the first time in their last 18 tries. His team having lost there again Friday night, Toronto manager John Gibbons decided on Saturday that he wasn’t going to risk the lore anymore. Before every home game, the Yankees celebrate themselves and their history with a multimedia pageant that would embarrass Kim Jong-un. Great moments in Yankees history — and there are a lot of them, damn it — come gushing from the center-field message board. Lou Gehrig humbly faces death again, his voice amplified to about 11 decibels past boiler room. A nation’s lonely eyes can easily find Joe DiMaggio; he’s projected up to the size of a warehouse wall. Add to this the fact that the team is spending the entire season celebrating the impending retirement of Derek Jeter, who already is appearing up there on the Big Screen with the rest of them, and you wind up with the Los Alamos of Yankeeology, every day before every game. If they keep this up all season, the franchise may go blind.

But nobody does this stuff better than New York does, and Gibbons knows that, so he refused to send his team out for batting practice. They stretched in their clubhouse. Gibbons determined that what his club needed was to go about its business without history hitting it over the head with a hammer. And it turned out that it worked. On Saturday, the Yankees shamed every single one of their ghosts by playing the field like goobers. In the seventh inning, with the game tied 2-2 and men on second and third, Toronto catcher Dioner Navarro bounced the ball to Brian McCann at first base. McCann stood there, flummoxed, looking at the ball like an elderly lady contemplating the honeydews at a fruit stand, checked the runners, and let Navarro get by him. (And, somewhere, Carlos Gomez giggles horribly and shouts, “Play the game the right way!”) One batter later, and facing Matt Thornton with the bases loaded, Dan Johnson chipped a looping hit toward second base. Yankees second baseman Brian Roberts joined McCann, who was hanging around in the same general area, in complete bumfuzzlement. The ball dropped in front of him. Johnson was safe. Melky Cabrera scored. This is not an inning they are going to be replaying in the third Yankee Stadium come 2044. The Jays had a lead and, eventually, their first win in the Bronx since August 29, 2012. I am as respectful of analytics as the next guy, but sometimes you just need the other side to put on the big old clown shoes and give you a break. “We were trying anything,” Gibbons said. “We were just trying to change the feeling, the mojo here. When you lose 17 in a row, you deserve something like that.”

(To be fair, McCann, a career catcher, didn’t start a game at first base until May, and he’s only there now because Mark Teixeira and Kelly Johnson are both injured.)

Thus liberated, the Jays went out on Sunday and won again, holding off three Yankees rallies to win, 5-4, on some nifty — if somewhat more conventional — baseball. In the ninth inning, with the score tied, Jose Bautista reached first on a fielder’s choice. Then he caught everyone by surprise by stealing second without even drawing a throw. That put Bautista in position to score the winning run on Navarro’s single. They remain in second place in the American League East, one game ahead of the Yankees as both teams pursue Baltimore in what is becoming a very tight race. For years now, people have been waiting on the Jays, and the Jays have rewarded them by falling flat. Now, though, with the Red Sox playing for 2015, and Baltimore unable to break free, and the Blue Jays — suddenly being capable of entering Yankee Stadium without turning into a puddle — are where everybody thought they should have been for the last few seasons. They’ve already had a last-to-first run, having torn up their schedule in May. At 35, Mark Buehrle has stabilized a starting rotation that was in chaos last season, but the face of the transformation going forward may well belong to someone who is 13 years younger than he is, and who arrived just in time both to bail out a struggling bullpen and to inject it with some unmistakable charisma.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees

Last Tuesday, Toronto called up Aaron Sanchez, a lean, 6-foot-4 right-hander with absolutely filthy stuff. He throws pitches that bring you out of your chair. Sanchez sailed through the Blue Jays system, spending only a month in Triple-A before joining the team just in time to stand Boston on its ear, pitching two scoreless innings through the heart of the Red Sox order. On Sunday, he came on and pitched the seventh and eighth innings. In the seventh, relying almost completely on down-biting fastballs, he got all three hitters to bounce meekly into routine infield outs. (“Pitching to contact” is the term of art now, it seems.) The Yankees dinged him for the tying run in the eighth, when Carlos Beltran got his bat on a low-and-away fastball and lofted it over shortstop. But all this meant was that, when Toronto finally concocted the winning run in the ninth, Sanchez had his first major league win.

“Maybe not so much the way I would have liked to have had it,” Sanchez said. “I mean, we go and score a run there in the eighth, and I go back out there, and I need to do a better job of shutting that inning down. It was a good pitch, but it was Carlos Beltran, and he’s a good hitter, and he did what he was supposed to do. I think I was still a little bit upset that I didn’t do my job, but once Bautista stepped across the plate, I was glad we won it.”

This is the best thing about pennant races. Young players get chucked into them, and you don’t know whether you’re watching the beginning of a career that one day will be splashed across whatever the 22nd century has for “game preparation.” Within the pressure, there are beginnings and there are endings, and you just have to be sharp enough to catch them as they go by.

F  irst one and then another pair of eyes followed the minister’s, and then almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle … They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!

—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Or, if you will, Daniel Webster’s famous dismissal of the vice-presidency: “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”

It must be genuinely strange to be Derek Jeter this year. (On Sunday, Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki, in New York to see a doctor, showed up at the game just to pay homage.) His prolonged farewell tour thus far has been as dignified as one of those things can be. He can see on the not-too-distant horizon the inevitable extravaganza that will envelop him at the end of September. Barring an appearance in the playoffs, there will be the last home game (September 25, against Baltimore), and then the last game of them all, three days later, in Boston, with all that that entails. It can’t be that easy to continue to play shortstop in the major leagues while history is slowly encasing you in marble. It can’t be that easy to live in the present when you’re already being measured for history. Ah, well, there’s always postgame banality.

“OK,” he begins, laughing. “It’s been good talking to you.” Hello, he must be going.

“We don’t go into the last two days worried about what we did the last eight games, you know what I mean?” Jeter said. “Toronto played better than us. They won two out of three. We have another one tomorrow, so that’s basically it. Numberswise, 7-3, that’s good, but you would have liked to have won this one today.” He was asked about Tulowitzki’s pilgrimage and Jeter said, “You say he was here to see me? That’s speculation. Maybe he was here to see Toronto.” And then everybody laughed.

He is handling it as well as can be expected. In fact, it can be argued that the public perception of his entire career has prepared him uniquely for 162 games of gift-laden idolatry. He truly was the guy who Played The Game Right. He got dragooned into everybody else’s fantasy of what A Ballplayer should be. (This meant, of course, that he was held up as a tin god by the steroid hysterics in the press, which can’t have been comfortable for him or anyone else.) Of course, he profited from this, and handsomely, too. Still, Jeter has played his entire career knowing that the game was building a pedestal under his feet — and that’s not even to mention the fact that various wise guys have used his late-career excellence as prima facie proof of … something. Derek Jeter got handed the role of hero in an age when baseball and its acolytes went into a moral panic and talked themselves out of having any. This made him both an idol and a target. No wonder the man speaks mainly in fluent clubhouse.

“Sometimes, teams are going to beat you. Toronto was better than us, but we have another one tomorrow,” Jeter said. One day very soon, of course, he won’t. He’ll be pixels on the big screen, and that’s it. Meanwhile, Aaron Sanchez may be burning down the American League. The passage of time is marked in milliseconds now. History is something you saw a moment ago. 

gmpuzzles July 28 2014, 19:07

Deficit Sudoku by Thomas Snyder



Deficit Sudoku by Thomas Snyder


Theme: Counting Puzzle?

Author/Opus: This is the 184th puzzle from Thomas Snyder, aka Dr. Sudoku.

Rules: Standard Deficit Sudoku rules.

Answer String: Enter the 1st row from left to right, followed by a comma, followed by the 4th row from left to right.

Time Standards (highlight to view): Grandmaster = 1:20, Master = 2:00, Expert = 4:00

Note: Follow this link for other Deficit and Surplus Sudoku.

The post Deficit Sudoku by Thomas Snyder appeared first on The Art of Puzzles.

grantland_feed July 28 2014, 16:40

The 30: Center of Attention



Trade-deadline week is finally here, and while we don’t know which players will move and which will stay, we do know that every team will be affected, directly or indirectly.

Today, I’ll take a closer look at four teams that could play particularly pivotal roles, either through action or inaction: the Phillies, who have numerous valuable trade chips but may not have the desire to move them; the Marlins, who remain borderline contenders and boast a surprisingly intriguing piece of bait; the Rays, who looked like sure sellers a month ago but now look capable of achieving something no team has before; and the Giants, who just made a big move to solidify their rotation and may not be finished dealing yet.

So, stretch out:

Focus up:

Keep calm as the storm builds:

And be sure to snack:

It’s Week 17 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

This week’s honors go to Royals designated hitter Billy Butler, who entered Friday’s game with a .264/.319/.343 line and three homers. Combine those numbers with his glacial running and nonexistent defense and you get one of the five worst everyday players in the league by WAR this season.

So when Butler came up to pinch-hit Friday with a man on and two outs in the eighth inning, he did so with the weight of that terrible season on his shoulders, but also with a chance to help a Jekyll-and-Hyde Royals team that was starting to surge its way back into the middle of the AL wild-card race. Facing a 1-0 count against Indians reliever John Axford, Butler got a pitch he could handle … and hammered it. The blast gave K.C. the lead and gave Butler a chance to admire his work before finally delivering a prodigious flip that screamed, “It’s about damn time.”


Dirty Water

The defending champs fall to the bottom tier.

30. Texas Rangers (41-64, -119 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Houston Astros (42-63, -107, LW: 29)
28. Colorado Rockies (43-61, -50, LW: 28)
27. Chicago Cubs (42-61, -50, LW: 25)
26. Arizona Diamondbacks (45-60, -71, LW: 27)
25. Philadelphia Phillies (46-59, -59, LW: 24)
24. Minnesota Twins (47-57, -42, LW: 22)
23. San Diego Padres (46-58, -39, LW: 26)
22. Boston Red Sox (48-57, -35, LW: 19)

With the deadline looming, most of the talk in Philadelphia is centering on Ryan Howard. This is spectacularly weird, because barring a miracle, there’s no way the Phillies will find a team willing to take on the former MVP’s contract.

The five-year, $125 million extension the Phillies gave Howard in 2010 was all but guaranteed to fail,13 but has somehow turned out even worse than the biggest skeptics could have imagined, as a decline in power and a string of injuries have knocked Howard out of the lineup for extended stretches and sapped much of his value.

Since Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon while making the final out of the 2011 National League Division Series against St. Louis, the Phillies have lost 29 more games than they’ve won, and Howard’s numbers have fallen off so sharply that FanGraphs now rates him as a sub-replacement-level player. While you can and should debate the definition of replacement level and the corresponding notion that the Phillies could pick up any Triple-A slugger and have him outperform Howard, because real life isn’t usually that simple, the fact remains that this season Howard is a .227/.309/.385 hitter, with nothing to offer as a defender or runner. He turns 35 in November, so he’s more likely to trend down than up. Whether or not the Phillies can find any team willing to take on Howard’s albatross of a contract, they need to ask themselves if Howard is really part of a winning formula moving forward.

Ryne Sandberg doesn’t seem to think so. The Phillies manager benched his big-name first baseman for three consecutive games last week, leading Philadelphia Inquirer writer Matt Gelb to break down l’Affaire Howard in his Sunday column. In a nutshell: Sandberg wants to get a look at younger players with the potential to play a role whenever Philly next produces a winning season.

In addition to shedding light on Sandberg’s logic, Gelb’s article highlights a deeper divide between the manager and his bosses. Ownership has understandably grown accustomed to the team’s recent massive revenue streams,14 so anything that could jeopardize that influx is something they’re going to fear. As such, it’s a scary proposition to consider trading, failing to re-sign, or limiting playing time for guys like Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and other players who helped fuel that financial success with tangible production and intangible star power. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is no stranger to shunting youth aside, paying for past performance, and ignoring the future.

If the Phillies’ leaders are willing to change their thinking to better align with their more progressive manager’s, though, they could speed up their return to winning baseball. While Howard is likely untradable, Philly still arguably has more players to shop than any other noncontender in lefty aces Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, right-handed midrotation starter A.J. Burnett, closer Jonathan Papelbon, lefty setup man Antonio Bastardo, outfielders Marlon Byrd and Ben Revere, catcher Carlos Ruiz, and possibly Rollins and Utley. Of course, it’s fair to debate the value or probability of any of these players actually being dealt: Hamels is one of the top pitchers on the planet when he’s healthy, he’s young by Phillies standards at 30 years old, and the team can certainly afford to keep him; meanwhile, Rollins and Utley have both said they have no desire to play elsewhere, and they have veto rights as 10-year MLB veterans who’ve played for the same team for five years or longer. What’s more, cashing in established players for no-names risks eroding the brand the Phillies have spent a ton of time and money building, and the club need look no further than the Astros to see what can happen to attendance and TV ratings when a team chooses to begin a massive rebuild.

But the Phillies aren’t the Astros. The new TV deal is banked, and though Howard in particular is now a sunk cost, the team can be smarter moving forward, and can make up for losses in attendance and related revenue by spending less money on players who aren’t all that good anymore. The Phillies probably won’t initiate a full-scale rebuild, but if ownership and management can meet halfway between fire sales and inertia, it’ll be a productive start.

So You’re Saying There’s a Chance!

Purgatory isn’t pleasant, but it also isn’t hell.

21. Chicago White Sox (51-55, -17, LW: 21)
20. New York Mets (50-55, +5, LW: 20)
19. Miami Marlins (51-53, -21, LW: 23)
18. Cleveland Indians (52-53, +6, LW: 16)
17. Cincinnati Reds (52-52, +8, LW: 13)

The Marlins have gone 31-38 since finding themselves in first place on May 8, and they needed a weekend sweep of the lowly Astros to prevent that mark from being even worse. The emergence of young players like Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Henderson Alvarez hasn’t been enough to overcome a thin roster that got considerably thinner when the great Jose Fernandez fell victim to the Tommy John epidemic. Still on the fringes of the wild-card race but not a great bet to actually play into October, the Marlins could be candidates to trade a couple of nonessential players (like Mike Dunn and maybe Steve Cishek) without touching any core guys (sorry, Giancarlo Stanton chasers).

One player who might make sense to move is Casey McGehee. The 31-year-old third baseman hasn’t hit for much power this year, managing just two home runs. But he’s been a valuable offensive player nonetheless, batting .31015 with a .376 on-base percentage, and earning a memorable nickname in the process. Few would have predicted this kind of success for McGehee given how his previous three years went: In 2011 and 2012, he hit a combined .221 with a .282 OBP while playing for the Brewers, Pirates, and Yankees. When no MLB team promised him playing time for 2013, McGehee signed a one-year deal to play for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. There, he hit .292, belted 28 homers, and reestablished both his bona fides and his confidence, leading to a contract with bargain-hunting Miami and a terrific first half that earned him a spot on the All-Star Game’s NL Final Vote ballot.

Recently, I spoke with McGehee about his year overseas, his successful return to the big leagues, and the possibility of a trade. 

What prompted you to go to Japan?

I wanted to be in a situation where I was going to be able to play. I enjoy playing. I wasn’t at the point of my career where I could just accept sitting on the bench and being a pinch hitter. Japan gave me an opportunity to play every day. There was no guarantee that I was ever going to get back [to the majors]. I had to be OK knowing that might be where it ended for me.

Did you make a major mechanical change or do something else to alter your approach?

It was more of a mental thing. Not feeling like I had to hit the ball out of the park was a goal. For me, it was more like, try to take something away from the pitcher. Be willing to take my singles the other way. Take what they’re giving you. Instead of trying to get the head out and drive everything, try to use the other side of the field. I needed to do that to get back here, because [MLB pitchers] are too good to just make mistake after mistake. You’re going to have to hit some good pitches.

[The right-handed McGehee’s career spray chart shows that he has gone the other way quite often during his career, including hitting home runs that way.]


Was there a memorable moment last year that helped turn things around?

It was just getting back the feeling where you go to the plate and you’re not chasing results. Not hoping, but knowing I was going to have a good at-bat. I got back to expecting myself to do it.

What was your reaction when the Marlins signed you and gave you a chance to play every day in the majors again?

Coming back, and even now, I just took it as a chance to get back to the big leagues. I have to listen to the advice I give other people. I got off to a good start in the big leagues, had a couple of pretty good years. The downfall was quick. Being a little older and wiser, I kind of understand why it happened. It was nobody else’s fault. I just didn’t put my best foot forward. If I hadn’t had this opportunity to come back, I would have kicked myself for trying to do things that were not really part of my game.

So for me it was just getting another chance. Not a lot of people get that. Then it’s not only appreciating it, but realizing that it can go away as quickly as the first chance did. It’s about staying disciplined, doing the things that can make and keep you successful. And also not getting too excited over a little more than half a season. I didn’t have a good taste in my mouth to leave when I did.

The Marlins have fallen back a bit after a hot start, and this is the time of year for trade rumors. I know players say they don’t hear them or ignore them, but where do you stand on that? As someone who’s moved around a lot, is that something you’re trying not to hear?

Oh, I’ve been traded before, I know that’s a possibility. But at the same time I don’t think we’re out of it. I truly believe we have a chance to get back in it. We have a lot of games left against the teams ahead of us. Just a few weeks ago we were tied for first place. One nice little run and we’re right back in it. The year we went to the playoffs with the Brewers, the Cardinals looked like they were out of it. Then they got as hot as any team I’ve ever seen, got to the playoffs, got to the World Series, and won it all. It’s baseball. You never know.

Do You Believe? 

The red-hot Rays join this deep group of playoff aspirants.

16. Kansas City Royals (53-51, -1, LW: 17)
15. Tampa Bay Rays (51-54, -4, LW: 18)
14. New York Yankees (54-50, -28, LW: 15)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (55-49, -2, LW: 12)
12. Toronto Blue Jays (56-50, +23, LW: 14)
11. Seattle Mariners (54-51, +51, LW: 11)
10. St. Louis Cardinals (56-48, +11, LW: 9)

Based on wins and losses, the Rays shouldn’t be this high: They’re three games under .500, with a worse record than the Miami team I just called a fringe contender. Based on the standings, the Rays shouldn’t be this high: They trail three teams in the AL East and six teams in the wild-card chase with just 57 games to play. Based on the playoff odds, the Rays shouldn’t be this high: They’ve got a 10.9 percent chance to make the postseason, according to both ESPN and Baseball Prospectus. And based on history, the Rays shouldn’t be this high: They sat 18 games under .500 on June 10, and no team has ever gone on to make the playoffs after falling into that big of a hole.

Forget all of that. Before losing to Boston on Sunday, Tampa Bay had won nine straight, pulling itself off the mat and earning my endorsement as a legitimate contender. The reasons go far beyond this hot streak or looking good while winning games.

Let’s start with some numbers. I’ve written about cluster luck a couple of times this year, but here’s a quick refresher: The concept has roots in the work that Pete Palmer did on linear weights more than three decades ago, and various refinements have been made since, including by Power Rank proprietor and Grantland contributor Ed Feng. Cluster luck stems from the idea that teams have little to no control over when hits occur, either the ones batters try to collect or the ones pitchers try to prevent. If a starting pitcher allows nine singles, but scatters them to avoid allowing a run, he’s lucky; and if a team manages eight hits in a game, but gets seven in one inning, it’s also lucky. Being lucky isn’t always a good thing, however, because luck can’t last: If a team sustains that good fortune for a few weeks or even months, it means that regression toward the mean is likely, that the best bet is league-average luck going forward, and that the team’s wins pace will likely decrease as a result. The same applies for teams experiencing bad luck, only in reverse: If those clubs enjoy an average number of bounces after their period of poor luck concludes, they stand to win more games.

One of the many things that make the Rays so interesting is that they’ve defied those trends, starting to win more games despite continuing to experience abysmal luck. When I examined Feng’s cluster luck standings in late May, Tampa Bay had cost itself about 15 runs due to the offense failing to bunch hits together and the pitchers giving up too many hits in bunches. When Feng ran the numbers five weeks later, he found that the team had plummeted all the way to minus-54 runs. Even as the Rays were starting to turn around their season, they were still suffering from bad breaks. According to Feng’s data, the Rays have improved their cluster luck a bit since, but remain dead last in that department:

1. Oakland: 49.42 (38.48, 10.94)16
2. Baltimore: 27.79 (-14.68, 42.47)
3. Kansas City: 25.44 (5.55, 19.89)
4. Seattle: 23.71 (13.23, 10.48)
5. New York Mets: 22.65 (-4.96, 27.61)
6. Washington: 20.10 (2.85, 17.26)
7. Atlanta: 19.29 (-5.81, 25.09)
8. Cincinnati: 15.36 (-1.47, 16.84)
9. Milwaukee: 12.48 (9.76, 2.72)
10. San Francisco: 10.49 (1.30, 9.19)
11. Minnesota: 8.08 (5.43, 2.65)
12. San Diego: 7.16 (-4.53, 11.69)
13. Texas: 4.31 (1.28, 3.03)
14. Cleveland: 2.08 (-0.66, 2.73)
15. Toronto: 1.70 (-20.84, 22.55)
16. Detroit: 0.36 (-10.60, 10.96)
17. Miami: -1.26 (-7.70, 6.44)
18. Philadelphia: -2.29 (1.88, -4.17)
19. New York Yankees: -4.40 (-10.93, 6.53)
20. Boston: -6.38 (-28.38, 22.00)
21. Arizona: -8.38 (-8.42, 0.04)
22. Los Angeles Dodgers: -9.04 (-24.40, 15.36)
23. Chicago White Sox: -13.02 (-2.55, -10.47)
24. St. Louis: -16.28 (-18.45, 2.17)
25. Los Angeles Angels: -20.02 (14.20, -34.21)
26. Pittsburgh: -22.97 (-26.08, 3.11)
27. Colorado: -23.06 (-22.70, -0.36)
28. Houston: -35.54 (-17.74, -17.80)
29. Chicago Cubs: -35.72 (-3.87, -31.84)
30. Tampa Bay: -41.10 (-33.38, -7.73)


With cluster luck this poor, the Rays shouldn’t be winning as many games as they are; imagine how effective they could be if they got a little luck down the stretch.

Moving on from cluster luck, we can get a better sense of where the Rays should rank in MLB’s hierarchy by examining Base Runs, a concept developed by baseball analyst David Smyth that estimates the number of runs a team should have scored, and allowed, based on a hitter’s or pitcher’s component statistics independent of factors such as hit clustering. Many analysts have derided the Rays’ offense as subpar and pointed to it as a big reason for Tampa Bay’s failure to live up to preseason expectations, but that’s not really true, or fair: On a park-adjusted basis, Tampa Bay ranks a healthy eighth in team offense by wRC+, and using run scoring and run prevention as metrics, it ranks sixth by Base Runs, trailing only four first-place teams and the powerful Angels.


Using advanced stats isn’t the only way to explain how the Rays have been baseball’s hottest team since June 11, or to justify calling Tampa Bay a possible playoff team even though it’s 7.5 games out in the East and 4.5 out of the second wild-card spot. We can also point to two surprising rookies who’ve improved in a hurry.

Jake Odorizzi posted a 6.83 ERA through his first six starts this season, looking overmatched as he attempted to help a starting rotation crushed by injuries to Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb. Since then, Odorizzi has gone from being an afterthought in the Wil Myers trade to being one of the American League’s most dominant pitchers. Over his last 14 starts, Odorizzi has pitched 79 innings, struck out 98 batters, and posted a 2.96 ERA; he even outdueled Adam Wainwright last Tuesday while beating the team he grew up supporting.

Odorizzi and his fellow pitchers have benefited from another rookie: Kevin Kiermaier was forced into regular playing time following injuries to Myers and David DeJesus, and he has responded with dazzling defense and ample offense. The defense was expected; batting .311/.363/.548 while outslugging Andrew McCutchen, Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, Yasiel Puig, Ryan Braun, and Miguel Cabrera was obviously not.

The Rays still have a big hill to climb, needing to make their way back above .500 and then past all of those other teams. And they’ll have to do it against a fierce schedule, with 37 of their final 57 games coming against teams above .500, and with a brutal stretch against the Brewers, Angels, and A’s starting today. But they’ve achieved something remarkable by even getting to this point. And barring a series of extremely unlikely and immediate events, the Rays probably won’t trade David Price, Ben Zobrist, or any other major contributor before Thursday’s non-waiver deadline.

Chalk some of that up to stubborn optimism and competitiveness. As with virtually everything the Rays achieve, however, chalk most of it up to smarts and math. All year long, the numbers said the Rays were much better than their record indicated. Now, finally, the wins are starting to follow.

Top of the Heap

Five of baseball’s best teams were also-rans a year ago.

9. San Francisco Giants (57-48, +26, LW: 7)
8. Atlanta Braves (57-48, +24, LW: 6)
7. Baltimore Orioles (58-46, +29, LW: 8)
6. Milwaukee Brewers (59-47, +29, LW: 10)
5. Detroit Tigers (57-45, +43, LW: 3)
4. Washington Nationals (57-45, +75, LW: 5)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (59-47, +54, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Angels (63-41, +91, LW: 2)
1. Oakland A’s (65-39, +170, LW: 1)

Even by the standards of a former Cy Young winner making his debut for a playoff contender following a trade, Jake Peavy’s first outing for the Giants was heavily scrutinized. Matt Cain had recently hit the disabled list with an elbow injury that made everyone nervous and heightened the team’s need for starting pitching; Peavy had pitched poorly for the Red Sox this season, posting a 4.72 ERA and 4.80 FIP, with 20 homers and 131 hits allowed in 124 innings; and the Giants had given up two intriguing prospects17 for a two-month rental who rated among the worst starting pitchers this year.

By game’s end, the verdict was in: The Giants should be more concerned about their defense than their pitching. And they need a new second baseman and possibly a new left fielder more desperately than they need anything else.

When GM Brian Sabean picked up Dan Uggla, he did so for added insurance, with veteran Marco Scutaro battling injuries and 23-year-old Joe Panik an untested commodity. But with Scutaro back on the disabled list and Panik failing to hit, Uggla made his third start as a Giant on Sunday night and looks like the everyday option for the time being. Uggla played so poorly in Atlanta that the Braves chose to eat nearly $20 million and cut him loose rather than continue to shoehorn him into the lineup, and so far it’s been more of the same in San Francisco, with Uggla making two ugly errors in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Dodgers to go with a botched double-play pivot and an 0-for-3 night at the plate. In his three games with the Giants, Uggla is 0-for-8 with three errors and at least as many boos.

By comparison, Mike Morse’s continued presence in the lineup might not seem like a problem. Morse is hitting .275/.327/.476, netting a 131 wRC+, which means he’s been 31 percent more productive offensively than the average player, trailing only Hunter Pence among Giants regulars. However, those numbers are deceptive. Morse started the season as one of the hottest hitters in the game, cranking 13 homers and slugging .577 as of June 5. Since then, he’s hit like a shortstop in the mid-’60s, batting .261/.311/.346 with just one home run in 43 games. When Morse slumps this badly, he becomes unplayable, because he’s always a liability on the basepaths and a disaster in left field.

Sometimes his defensive weakness is glaring. Other times it’s subtle, like during the fourth inning of Sunday’s loss, when with one out and Carl Crawford on second, Juan Uribe ripped a liner to left for a base hit. While Crawford remains one of the fastest players in the league, Morse’s attempt to cut him down at the plate was weak at best. Morse halfheartedly charged the ball, coming up with it slower than most outfielders would have, then delivered a dying quail of a two-hopper, which meandered into Buster Posey’s glove after Crawford had scored the tying run. The Giants have multiple lineup problems, with Scutaro, Brandon Belt, and Angel Pagan all out and the likes of Uggla and Adam Duvall trying in vain to fill the void, so there’s pretty much no way they’re going to sit Morse, especially given how shiny his season-long batting line looks. Still, until he starts hitting balls over the wall again, Morse will remain one of the weakest everyday players on a contending team.

So, yes, Peavy struggled at times in his Giants debut, allowing four runs on six hits with two walks and two wild pitches in six innings, but he and his fellow Giants hurlers would have better results this year if the team’s defense hadn’t gone from being the league’s best during the past decade to middle of the pack or worse this year, depending on your metric of choice.18 If the Giants want Peavy & Co. to succeed and for the team to have a shot at knocking off the Dodgers in the NL West, they’ll need to delete at least one of their defensive liabilities from the lineup. And they’ll need to do so as quickly as possible. 

grantland_feed July 28 2014, 15:10

The Geniuses Behind ‘Sharknado’



In this exclusive feature, meet the cracked geniuses at The Asylum, the production company responsible for Syfy’s Sharknado and this week’s insanely anticipated sequel, Sharknado 2: The Second One.

Before Sharknado, The Asylum was best known as the home of the mockbuster, that genre of low-budget movie that looks suspiciously similar to the world’s biggest blockbusters. In 2012, Tom Breihan got to the bottom of the phenomenon for Grantland. Read about it here. 

thinmanblog July 28 2014, 14:27

To the rescue



Last week, I returned from the annual National Puzzlers' League convention, which this year was held in Portland, Maine. As usual, I had a fantastic time solving and socializing with my puzzling family, and I still have a pile of cryptics I never got to!

The capstone to the convention is the Saturday night extravaganza, in which attendees work in teams of four to solve a big set of interconnected puzzles, leading to a satisfying final meta answer. This year's event took a different approach; while there was a small group of people heading up the design, every puzzle was constructed by a different NPL member. These contributors could still play in the extravaganza; they just had to recuse themselves from helping with their own puzzle. I was one of the people approached to make a puzzle, and I did so, but due to an abundance of grid puzzles, it was left on the cutting-room floor. But hey, that's what the Internet is for; I've posted it here for your enjoyment. As with all hunt-style puzzles, you seek a single word or short phrase as your final answer, and I warn you that this puzzle is completely untested and unedited. You can contact me if you see something I really should change.

Looking ahead, here's another reminder of the upcoming Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament in New York City. I've test-solved the first drafts of the puzzles and I can say that some fun challenges await you. I once again will fail to attend because I am super-lame. You should go so you can be not super-lame.

grantland_feed July 28 2014, 13:40

Don’t Dismiss Texas



Something strange has happened in each of the last two NFL seasons. In both 2012 and 2013, the team that finished with the worst record in the NFL and received the first overall pick has responded by immediately making the playoffs the following year. It’s the sort of parity that causes Roger Goodell to build a money-counting room in his house out of hundred-dollar bills. Four teams (the 2004 Chargers, 2008 Dolphins, 2012 Colts, and 2013 Chiefs) have accomplished the feat in the last 10 years, but before them, the last franchise to make its way from dead last into the playoffs was the 1982 strike-season Patriots.19

This year, the Houston Texans will attempt to be the third consecutive franchise to boomerang back into the playoffs. They have a better shot than you might think. Just as was the case with the Chiefs last August, let’s run through the reasons why the Texans could be the latest franchise to take a large step forward.

Click here for more from our 2014 NFL preview.

The Statistical Case

In December, as Houston was finishing its collapse to 2-14, I wrote about how many of the statistical indicators suggested that Houston wasn’t quite as bad as its record. A pair of subsequent blowout losses to the Colts and Broncos color those numbers some, but even with them included, the Texans simply didn’t play like a 2-14 team last season and won’t look like one again in 2014. Here’s why:

They had the point differential of a 4-12 team. The Texans posted a point differential of minus-152 last season. That’s not good — only the Jaguars were worse — but we know that a team’s point differential is a better indicator of future win-loss record than its previous win-loss record, and Houston’s Pythagorean expectation with that sort of point differential is that of a 4.2-win team, a 2.2-win gap. Since 1989,20 there have been 22 teams that have underperformed their point differential by somewhere between two and 2.5 wins. Those teams improved by an average of 1.6 wins the following season. Not exactly the sort of improvement to plan a nonrefundable parade, but it’s a start.

They lost a disproportionate number of their close games. After finishing 5-0 in games decided by one touchdown or less in 2012, the 2013 Texans won their first two games by a total of nine points … and then lost their final 14 contests, including nine by seven points or fewer. Only four teams in the past 25 years have lost at least nine one-touchdown games in a single season, most recently the 2011 Vikings, who rolled off a stunning run to the postseason themselves in 2012. Since 1989, 50 teams have posted a winning percentage in close games of .250 or less (with a minimum of six such games in that season). After going 78-344 (.184) in close games in those seasons in question, the 50 teams were 181-203 (.471) in those games the following year. Houston’s not “due” to win a bunch of close games, just as it wasn’t due to lose a ton of them this past season, but there’s no reason to think it will be that bad in close contests again.

They’re subject to the Plexiglass Principle. Good teams that suddenly turn bad out of nowhere tend to gain back some of their losses very quickly. Houston declined by a staggering 10 games last season, the largest deficit since the 1993 Houston Oilers went from 12-4 to 2-14. A year later, with Jeff Fisher taking over as the full-time coach, they were 7-9. Forty-eight teams have declined by six wins or more since 1989; the following season, those teams won an average of 3.1 more games than they had the previous campaign.

They blew a lot of games in the second half. Houston led at halftime before losing a whopping six times last year, and it wasn’t like the Texans were battling bad teams to a narrow halftime lead, either. Houston blew second-half leads against the Cardinals, Colts, Patriots, and, in the loss that seemed to send its season into a tailspin, the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. This after failing to blow a single halftime lead in 2012! The Chargers led the league with five such losses in 2012, and they made a triumphant return to the playoffs last year. Just five other teams have blown at least six halftime leads in a season since 1989, and each of those teams improved dramatically (by 5.2 wins) the following season. A larger sample would include the 71 teams since 1989 that have blown four or more halftime leads; those teams blew an average of 1.6 such games the following year while improving their record by 2.4 wins.

They allowed way too many defensive touchdowns. That aforementioned Seahawks game turned on the worst of Matt Schaub’s four pick-sixes in four games, which was a statistical improbability. After allowing a league-low two points to opposing defenses in 2012, Houston gave up 38 points (six touchdowns and a safety) in 2013. That’s not going to happen again. Since 1999,21 56 teams have allowed 30 points (five touchdowns) or more on offensive turnover returns. The following year, those teams allowed an average of 17 points, which is almost exactly at the league average of 16.8 points per season. Even if you thought there were something wrong with Schaub that innately makes him throw more pick-sixes than the average quarterback (and if you’re capable of looking back through his entire career, there isn’t), Schaub is now safely ensconced in Oakland, where he is super happy about things.

They’re going to create more takeaways. In addition to all of those defensive touchdowns allowed, the Texans couldn’t create many big plays of their own on D. They forced just 11 takeaways last season, the fewest in football. In a related fact, Houston finished with a turnover margin of minus-20, the worst in the league by a significant margin, as the Giants were closest to Houston at minus-15. Turnover margin just isn’t a consistent statistic from year to year; the Texans were plus-12 in 2012, and the likes of Kansas City and Philadelphia (both minus-24 in 2012) both rode massive turnover swings in 2013 to the playoffs. There are 53 teams since 1989 with a turnover margin between minus-25 and minus-15, and in the subsequent season, their respective turnover margins were almost exactly zero. Turnovers will stop opposing drives from scoring points while also setting up the Houston offense with better field position; the turnover-starved Texans had the league’s third-worst average starting field position a year ago.

They’ll be better at kicking field goals. After relying on Neil Rackers for years, the Texans used a fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft on Texas A&M kicker Randy Bullock, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve with a groin ailment before taking over as the starter in 2013. It didn’t go super well. Bullock was a disaster early in the season, as he missed nine of his first 23 kicks, including an 0-for-3 performance against the Titans in Week 2 and a 2-for-6 stretch in consecutive three-point losses to the Colts and Cardinals. The good news is that Bullock hit his final 12 field goal attempts, and that the Texans are unlikely to hit just 74.3 percent of their field goals this season, as kicking accuracy is wildly inconsistent from year to year. If Bullock can’t do the job, it will fall to rookie Chris Boswell. Or maybe the Texans will take a page out of the mid-’90s Jets playbook and sign Texas-born Clint Dempsey to be their kicker. What? Don’t take pages out of the mid-’90s Jets playbook? OK, fine.

They’ll face an easy schedule. Last year, Houston’s out-of-division schedule included the NFC West, the AFC West, and first-place matchups against the Ravens and Broncos. Their brutal slate rated as the AFC’s toughest schedule and the fifth-hardest lineup in the NFL, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. That’s not going to be the case this year, with Houston set to face the NFC East, AFC North, and the AFC’s other last-place teams in Oakland and Buffalo. Strength-of-schedule estimations are widely maligned because they often use the previous year’s win-loss record as the measure of strength, which isn’t actually very helpful. There are better ways to estimate strength of schedule. In May, Chase Stuart used the lines for each game from the first 16 weeks of the 2014 season in Las Vegas22 to infer each team’s strength of schedule entering the campaign, and he found that Houston had the easiest schedule in football without even considering that the Texans play the Jaguars at Reliant Stadium in Week 17. That’s no guarantee Houston will end up with the league’s easiest schedule when things are said and done, but at the very least, Houston’s slate should be massively easier in 2014 than it was last year.

The Human Case

The Texans are unlikely to quit on their coach again. It’s impossible to quantify whether a team has given up on its season and its management, and it can be a crutch to explain away bigger problems, but it certainly seems like the Texans quit on head coach Gary Kubiak at some point last season. The fans certainly did. It could have been his handling of the quarterback situation, and Kubiak’s scary collapse in early November certainly deserves plenty of sympathy, but the Texans were simply a hopeless team by the time December rolled around.

It’s also impossible to figure out whether an NFL head coach will succeed before he actually steps into the gig, but Bill O’Brien certainly seems to have plenty of potential. After spending five seasons as a coach on the offensive side of the ball for New England, O’Brien stepped into an impossibly difficult gig at Penn State and grossly surpassed expectations, going 15-9 over two seasons while developing the dismal Matt McGloin into an unlikely professional quarterback. It’s unclear whether O’Brien will fall closer to Harbaugh or Petrino on the college coaching scale, and the Bill Belichick Coaching Tree has an NFL record of just 72-119 (.377, roughly a 6-10 season every year),23 but O’Brien should have his players’ attention for at least one season. Many recent turnarounds have come with an improvement in coaching, including those of Indianapolis (Bruce Arians/Chuck Pagano over Jim Caldwell) and Kansas City (Andy Reid over Romeo Crennel).

They’ll have a possible upgrade at quarterback. It seems strange to say Ryan Fitzpatrick represents an upgrade at quarterback, but Houston’s passers were really bad last season. No, really, compare their 2013 numbers to Fitzpatrick’s since the Harvard star began his first season as a full-time starter in Buffalo in 2010:

Fitzpatrick also hasn’t had a receiver pair as good as Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins to work with since he spent 2008 with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Cincinnati.

It’s also possible that O’Brien eventually turns the job over to Tom Savage, the team’s fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh. Savage is one of the least pro-ready prospects I can imagine, a big-armed pocket passer who has shown little beyond that arm strength, but if O’Brien can save McGloin from a job at Enterprise car rental, he might even be able to make Savage into a viable pro starter.

The Texans added a once-in-a-generation pass-rusher. Jadeveon Clowney could still end up as a bust at the professional level, and he’s already struggling with a sports hernia that required surgery in June, but just about every scouting report agrees that Clowney’s a franchise pass-rusher. Even with the terrifying J.J. Watt on board, Houston accrued just 32 sacks last season, the third-lowest figure in the NFL.

Houston might be healthier. While they weren’t as injury-hit as the Giants or Packers, the Texans suffered from a wide variety of injuries during their 2013 campaign. Just eight Texans managed to start all 16 games in 2013, with stars like Arian Foster, Brian Cushing, Duane Brown, and Johnathan Joseph each missing time. Of Houston’s core players, only Watt, Chris Myers, and Andre Johnson managed to stay healthy all season.

There will be fewer replacement-level snaps. Last year’s ill-fated move to sign Ed Reed turned out to be an absolute disaster; Reed was alternately injured and ineffective and seemingly always unhappy before being released in November. He was replaced by rookie second-rounder D.J. Swearinger, who was in over his head at first before improving as the season went along. Up and down the roster, players who simply aren’t NFL-caliber regulars were thrust into roles they couldn’t handle. Guys like Ryan Harris, Case Keenum, Wade Smith, Ryan Griffin, and Darryl Sharpton played hundreds of snaps that will go to better players in 2014.

The Case Against Houston

Ryan Fitzpatrick is no good. Had the Texans made a more significant upgrade at quarterback this offseason, I would be banging this drum much harder. As it is, while improvement is assured, the playoffs might be too tall of a task with the Fitzchise at quarterback. Outside of a useful half-season with the Bills in 2011, Fitzpatrick’s been a below-average quarterback throughout his career, throwing interceptions on a whopping 3.6 percent of his pass attempts. During Fitzpatrick’s career, the only passers (minimum 1,000 attempts) who have thrown interceptions more frequently are — avert your eyes — Rex Grossman, Vince Young, Jon Kitna, Derek Anderson, and Mark Sanchez. Think about the guys I didn’t mention. He’s thrown interceptions more frequently than Jake Delhomme!

And yet those players did not lack for professional success. Grossman made a Super Bowl. Sanchez made two AFC Championship Games. Kitna and Young each had playoff starts. Anderson had a 10-5 season in 2007. None of those quarterbacks was very good, but when they had a great defense and caught a few breaks, their mediocrity wasn’t enough to hold their teams back from making the playoffs. And if the Texans do make it into the playoffs, it would be on the backs of Watt and Clowney anyway. It’s not that Fitzpatrick is good enough to drag his team into January. It’s that he’s not subpar enough to prevent them from dragging him over the finish line.

Andre Johnson is pissed. After years of playing the quiet superstar, something in Johnson snapped this offseason. Perhaps disappointed by Houston’s offseason work, he has requested a trade and refused to show up for minicamps. The problem with Johnson’s request is that it doesn’t really make a ton of sense for either party. The Texans can’t replace Johnson on short notice and would eat $12 million in dead money on their cap this season by trading or releasing him, saving Houston just $3.6 million on what it’s paying Johnson to actually play this season. And while Johnson remains a talented wideout, he’s due $31.5 million in base salaries alone over the next three seasons, an unpalatable amount for a wideout who just turned 33. Houston is unlikely to find a taker at that price in the trade market, and if Johnson were to be released, he would only receive a fraction of the money already coming to him on the free market. I wouldn’t count on Johnson leaving the club this season.

There are still holes on the lines. Despite the presence of superstars like Brown and Watt, departures and failed maneuvers have left Houston thin up front. The right side of Houston’s offensive line has been a massive disappointment for several seasons now, and there have been precious few signs that the combination of guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Derek Newton will produce, but with few options available, the Texans appear ready to stick with the duo for another season. Second-round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo seems more likely to slot in at left guard, where he’ll replace Smith.

Meanwhile, veteran Antonio Smith left the team this offseason for Oakland, leaving the Texans with a very thin defensive line next to Watt. Third-round pick Louis Nix III is the team’s nose tackle of the future, but Smith’s spot at end now belongs to 2012 fourth-rounder Jared Crick, a backup last season.

It’s a top-heavy team. Several years ago, Houston had one of the deepest rosters in football. Much of that depth has moved on; Philadelphia, in particular, appears to have an affinity for former Texans players. What’s left is a team with a few stars (Watt, Brown, Johnson, Foster, Clowney, Cushing, and Joseph) and little in reserve. For the Texans to compete, they need as many of those guys as possible to stay healthy for 16 games.

They don’t have Andrew Luck. Luck is really good.

The Texans are hardly guaranteed a playoff spot. Indeed, in the long run, it’s not hard to imagine them falling apart: Johnson pouts all season, Fitzpatrick gives way to a raw Savage, and Clowney limps through a disappointing rookie season. That’s a 5-11 or 6-10 team. That would still be a four-win improvement on last year’s squad! For the Texans to get to the next level and approach the postseason, though, they’ll need all of their offensive weapons (and coaches) firing on all cylinders. If they can combine a competent offense with the devastating pass-rush combination of Watt and Clowney, Houston might just be the latest surprise entrant into the playoffs. 

brendanquigley July 28 2014, 12:51

CROSSWORD #662: Themeless Monday


PROGRAMS: [Across Lite] [Adobe Reader]

PROGRAM: [Java]</p> </p>

So my girls have been slowly and methodically been doing some improvements around the house. No, not the condo. I'm talking about Tabitha's dollhouse. It's been pretty impressive. Old tube socks have become bath towels. A discarded makeup bag has been repurposed for a nice area rug. Really, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" has nothing on what Liz and Tabby have done to the place. Anyway, their latest piece de resistance has been, yeah, you guessed it, a crossword puzzle and pen for the Daddy. Here I am, presumably taking a break from solving to ... uh, watch some TV? Looks like Kathleen Sebelius is on some sort of talk show. The TV's brand new, too. Anyway, it's amazing work and I felt the need to share this moment of domestic bliss with you. Although I should say it's been years since I've had that much hair. Not everything's perfect.

Share the puzzle. New one on Thursday.

gmpuzzles July 27 2014, 16:43

Schedule for Next Week



All the puzzles from last week have been grouped in this PDF.

While I’ve been featuring a lot more puzzle types this year, I often get requests to go back to having more Sudoku. While my focus for many months has been organizing the 2014 Sudoku Grand Prix, now that that work is mainly done it seemed a good time to revisit the style here. So the deficit of that style won’t continue for much longer; we’ll have some classic puzzles, but not on consecutive days as that might be too many classics in a row. Even odd folks like us can appreciate a good puzzle where nothing is repeated, neighbors.

The bonus puzzle for our Expert and above patrons will be a Skyscrapers by Prasanna Seshadri.

The post Schedule for Next Week appeared first on The Art of Puzzles.

gmpuzzles July 26 2014, 16:26

Cross the Streams by Murat Can Tonta



Cross The Streams by Murat Can Tonta


Theme: 1, 2, Star, ?

Author/Opus: This is the 6th puzzle from guest contributor Murat Can Tonta.

Rules: Standard Cross the Streams rules.

Answer String: Enter the length in cells of each of the black segments from top to bottom for the marked columns in the two grids, going in order from A to B to C to D and separating each entry with a comma.

Time Standards (highlight to view): Grandmaster = 5:00, Master = 10:00, Expert = 20:00.

Note: Follow this link for other Cross the Streams. If you are new to this puzzle type, here are our easiest Cross the Streams to get started on.

The post Cross the Streams by Murat Can Tonta appeared first on The Art of Puzzles.

grantland_feed July 25 2014, 16:58

Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?



In simpler and more caveman-ish times, we would have called this piece “Sports Movie or Chick Flick?” That’s an easier premise than “Sports Movie or Rom-Com?” (doesn’t account for dramas), “Sports Movie, Rom-Com or Rom-Dram?” (the word Rom-Dram looks like a new erectile dysfunction drug), “Sports Movie, Rom-Com or High School Movie?” (still doesn’t account for dramas) and even “Sports Movie, Rom-Com, Rom-Dram or High School Movie?” (that title gave me a headache). So we’re audibling to something even more simple …

“Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?”

Now that’s easy! How do you know you’re watching a genuine sports movie? Answers to these four questions might help.

1. Could the movie have worked if you turned the sports theme into a non-sports theme, or would that have ruined the movie?

Here’s how I once broke down my love for School Ties 

“I love comparing Brendan Fraser to the other great movie quarterbacks. (I have him ranked behind Burt Reynolds but dead-even with Jamie Foxx.) I love the scene when Matt Damon finds out that Fraser’s character is Jewish (one of the better ‘Uh-oh, this isn’t gonna end well’ movie moments). I love when Damon turns into Evil Racist Preppy Damon, and I love wondering why the filmmakers decided to have Damon and Fraser fight naked in the shower. (It’s one of the strangest ideas in movie history. I’d put it against anything. They could have been shaving. They could have been brushing their teeth. Nope. Guys, take your clothes off and get wet — you’re gonna fight naked.) I love how the anti-Semitism angle kicks into 19th gear before Fraser’s classmates learn the valuable lesson, ‘Hey, he might be Jewish, but that doesn’t mean he’d cheat on a test.’) I love Fraser telling the dean, ‘You used me for football. I’ll use you to get into Harvard. Excuse me,’ and then the final Fraser-Damon exchange that ends the movie. It’s a cable classic.”

Notice how football wasn’t THAT important in that synopsis? School Ties was a high school movie about anti-Semitism that happened to include some football. Oh, and naked guys fighting in the shower. That, too. But Fraser’s character just needed to be better than Damon’s character at one thing, whether it was playing football, singing in the choir, trying out for the school musical or whatever. The sooner Fraser triggers Jealous Insecure Semi-Evil Jew-Hating Test-Cheating Matt Damon, the movie’s key character, the sooner we can learn lessons about life and stuff. That’s why School Ties isn’t a sports movie.

It’s been 25 years since the birth of the modern romantic comedy, so we’re celebrating them all week. Welcome to Rom-Com Week.

2. Does the movie have at least one “chills scene” in which you get goose bumps from something that’s specifically sports-related?

Some Hall of Fame examples: the final Roy Hobbs homer … Rocky getting up in Round 14 after Mickey tells him to stay down, then waving Apollo toward him as Apollo’s shoulders slump … Ollie’s two free throwsLaRusso’s crane technique to beat Lawrence … Louden Swain climbing the pegs to prove he can wrestle at 168 … or the Allies scoring their first goal against the Nazis. You could also throw in a variety of sports movie speeches like “I love you guys,” “For Granny, for Nate, for Caretaker,” “When [Apollo] died, a part of me died, too … ” and the last great moment of Pacino’s career (the “inches” speech). Hold on, those inches are all around us? Can you elaborate, Al?

Here’s when it gets confusing: when something like For Love of the Game vacillates between weighty rom-dram and sports movie for two hours, only it has a moment as fantastic as Mickey Hart jumping over the fence to save Billy Chapel’s perfect game. (“I LOVE YOU, MICKEY HART!”) Now what do we do?

(Then again, if For Love of the Game were really a sports movie, that Mickey Hart catch would be on YouTube. And it’s not. We’ll come back to this later.)

3. Could this movie appear on the Lifetime Network without making you say, “Wait, why the hell is this on the Lifetime Network?”

That’s the eternal dilemma with Bull Durham, a movie that sure seems comfortable being replayed on Lifetime between classics like Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? and My Stepson, My Lover. What is it about Bull Durham that makes it a staple on Lifetime? Hmmmmmmm. We’ll come back to this later, too.24

4. Do you inadvertently watch it every time it’s on just because you’re waiting for a specific sports scene (or sequence)?

Say you’re flipping channels and stumble across Bud Kilmer convincing his doctors to shoot up Wendell’s knee before Lance Harbor and the Beek intervene. You’re going to do the math in your head, figure out that it’s about 11 minutes until Billy Bob’s last touchdown and the “We Can Be Heroes” song, and you’re staying for those 11 minutes, right? If you don’t have sports-specific rewatchability, you probably don’t have a sports movie.

Before we settle some “sports movie or not a sports movie?” questions, please note that we’re skipping over Blue Crush (surfing movie), Breaking Away (a cycling movie, and a pantheon sports movie at that), Bring It On (a high school movie that happens to be about cheerleaders) and Drumline (a high school movie centered on bands); we’re going yes, yes, no and no for those four. We’re also sticking to movies released in the past 35 years (with only three exceptions), avoiding all Rob Lowe movies (if you care, Youngblood was a sports movie and Oxford Blues was a rom-com), steering clear of any forgettable 21st-century either/or movies (sorry, Wimbledon) and saving the four toughest calls for the end of the column. Here we go.

All the Right Moves (1983)

Here’s a high school football movie that’s secretly disguised as a rom-dram — after about the 35-minute mark, football disappears and the central plot becomes “Tom Cruise wanted to use football to get a college scholarship and get out of his depressing Pennsylvania mill town, but his coach kicked him off the team and blackballed him with recruiters, so he’s gonna become a lifelong loser unless his girlfriend can save him from himself.” Sounds like a Lifetime Network staple, right?

But the football stuff carries the movie: Cruise as an undersize cornerback doing over-the-top Cruise things; Rifleman laying down Colin Kaepernick’s success blueprint 30 years early; Sean Penn’s brother wreaking havoc as a Luke Kuechly–type linebacker; a phenomenal (and extended) football game that peaks with a goal-line stand during a semi-monsoon; Coach Craig T. Nelson’s inexplicable decision not to have Ampipe High take a safety (leading to Salvucci’s game-ending fumble in the end zone); Nelson even more inexplicably berating Salvucci in the locker room afterward (“Come on, give it a good cry! YOU CHOKED! YOU QUIT!”); then Cruise defending Salvucci with a Cruisetastic “We didn’t quit! YOU QUIT!” tirade. Just that 15 minutes alone ensured that Moves was and is a sports movie. Turn it into a TV show already. High school football in the heart of blue-collar Pennsylvania steel country! Get Pete Berg on the phone! THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

American Anthem (1986)

1984 Olympian Mitch Gaylord plays a rebel gymnast who gives up competing until he meets another gymnast played by … wait for it … Janet Jones! She gets him competing again, they make the Olympic trials, then she gets banned from the Olympics for betting on both of them. Fine, I made that last part up. But it’s loaded with gymnastics and it’s definitely a sports movie. Did it work? Gaylord’s next three IMDb movie credits after 1986’s Anthem:

• American Tiger (1990)

• Animal Instincts (1992)

• Sexual Outlaws (1994)

That’s right, Mitch went from American Anthem to Skinemax in six years. At least we’ll always have one of the funniest trailers ever made. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

The Blind Side (2009)

In 2009, I called it a “quality spork flick” (the hybrid of a sports movie and a chick flick) and reported that my wife loved it, while “I came out of it thinking, ‘It nearly gave me diabetes, but I have to say, it wasn’t that bad.’ That’s a win-win date movie for Team Simmons.” But a few cable TV years revealed glaring sports movie warts like lousy football scenes, no chills scene and no here-comes-the-big-game payoff. Guess what? It doesn’t matter! As I wrote five years ago, the heart of the movie isn’t football, but scenes like this one …

Gigantic Homeless Kid [looking at his new bedroom]: “It’s nice. I never had one before.”
Sandra Bullock: “What, a room to yourself?”
Gigantic Homeless Kid: “A bed.”

[Cut to Sandy fighting off tears.]

Or this one …

Bullock’s friend [praising her]: “You’re changing that boy’s life.”
Bullock [dramatic pause]: “No. He’s changing mine.”
Simmons: “And he’s the best sex I’ve ever had.”
Sports Gal: “Shut up! Stop talking!”

It’s a Sandra Bullock Saves Somebody movie; it never wanted to be a sports movie. Since The Blind Side made nearly $256 million domestic, I’m gonna say they made the right choice. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE

The Cutting Edge (1992)

Like everyone else in 1992, I specifically remember thinking that Edge turned D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly into stars. Whoops! D.B. played a former hockey player who gets paired up with a figure skater — against their wills, of course — for a potential Winter Olympics run. Good premise, great chemistry … lousy skating scenes. You know, lots of fast cuts, zooms, close-ups and every other 1992 trick to hide their skating doubles. If you weren’t sure it was a rom-com, the crucial tell happens right before their Olympic skate, when they’re fighting and then D.B. drops this doozy on Moira:

“Somewhere in the middle of all this, I fell in love with you. I’m saying I love you. I’m saying it out loud. You can’t say we’re not right for each other, because the way I see it, we might not be right for anyone else. It can’t be any harder to stay together than it was to stay apart. Kate, I need you. I need you.”

And then they go out and have the best skate of their lives. YOU HAD ME AT HELLO! We’ll be back on Lifetime after this. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE

Fever Pitch (2005)

The biggest complaint from my unkind 2005 review:25 They billed this as a sports comedy when it was really a straightforward rom-com. In fact, they nailed the 10 generic themes that invariably show up in any rom-com. I self-plagiarized those themes here so you don’t have to click back and forth, and also, because it’s Rom-Com Week!

Theme No. 1: You can’t meet the man of your dreams in a bar or at a party. It only happens if he randomly shows up in your office, if he made some sort of bet about you, if he saved your life or if you happen to be impersonating someone else at the time.

Theme No. 2: If you’re approaching 30 and you’re still single, it’s only because you’re working too hard, not because there’s something wrong with you. Just make sure you find a potential husband as fast as possible, even if it means destroying someone else’s life or committing some kind of crime.

Theme No. 3: In your search for love, always target schoolteachers, bartenders, widowers, or anyone who was once successful before hitting a stretch of bad luck. This way, when they finally turn their lives around or come into some money, they’ll erroneously think that you were the reason.

Theme No. 4: If you’re dating someone who is passionate about something, he will absolutely give that up for you because all men change once they fall in love. Especially if you have a nice apartment.

Theme No. 5: You can have only three friends: a smart friend who’s pretty in a quirky way, a calculating beauty who’s morally corrupt and an overweight girl who doesn’t say much. You can only hang out with these people all at once. If there’s anyone in your life who doesn’t fit one of those three categories, get rid of them.

Theme No. 6: Your boyfriend’s friends only get in the way. The sooner you can destroy them, the better.

Theme No. 7: If you become pregnant, don’t worry — nobody actually has a baby in a Rom-Com unless it’s in the title. It’s just a temporary dilemma so you can break up for a month and he’ll realize that he can’t live without you — mainly because you pushed away his friends and ruined his life.

Theme No. 8: If you’re breaking up with the guy to prove a point, immediately find the best-looking guy in your office and invite him over to dinner, then hope the other guy shows up. When he shows up, he won’t do anything vengeful like get drunk and hook up with the nearest bimbo. He’ll simply stop shaving and showering until one of his friends goes over to his house to snap some sense into him.

Theme No. 9: When you finally get back together, make sure it happens in the goofiest place possible — whether it’s a baseball stadium, the top of a skyscraper, the launching of a space shuttle or wherever.

Theme No. 10: Either you will end up living happily ever after, or you will find a deep friendship with a gay man that will end up being just as satisfying.

I’m still confused that the Farrellys willingly opted to make a rom-com over a sports movie. They were gift-wrapped the perfect sports book (Nick Hornby’s classic) and the perfect storm of events (as they were filming the movie, the 2004 Red Sox turned into THE 2004 RED SOX). They were even from Rhode Island and still screwed it up. That’s like Spike Lee screwing up a Brooklyn movie! Whoops, bad example. So can’t we get a do-over with soccer gaining steam here? What about a traumatized Seattle fan hitting rock bottom after the Sonics get hijacked in 2008, disowning the NBA entirely, becoming an MLS fan, then throwing himself into the Sounders even as he’s falling for a girl from Portland who happens to be a huge Timbers fan? (Thinking.) You’re right, I’ll keep brainstorming. We need a better Fever Pitch movie. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE

Hard Ball (2001)

Take Dangerous Minds, cross it with Bad News Bears, sprinkle in a dash of The Wire, throw in some Biggie Smalls music and bring in full-tilt Keanu Reeves for good measure. I mean, is there any doubt there’s a 2001 Hardball review in my ESPN archives that’s way, way, way, way too long? Hardball is to Keanu what Trapped in the Closet was to R. Kelly — he’s never been more Keanuish, Keanooey or Keanodacious, ever, not ever. They halfheartedly included a romantic subplot with a tired-looking, I’m-glad-they-never-asked-me-to-get-naked-in-this Diane Lane going through the motions of liking Keanu, but it’s definitely a baseball movie and I definitely watch anytime it’s on.

And now that we’ve settled that …

I will never forgive them for killing G-Baby. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

You know when an actor becomes super-duper famous and eventually talks himself into a flawed script, a needless sequel or a remake of a movie that shouldn’t be remade? He knows he probably shouldn’t do it, but his ego takes over and he just can’t help himself … and he’s so freaking famous and bankable that Hollywood can’t resist bankrolling the movie for him? That’s a Fuck It, I’m Famous movie. Cruise in Far and Away, Leo in The Beach, Stallone in Rhinestone, Will Smith releasing back-to-back sequels for Men in Black and Bad Boys … those were all Fuck It, I’m Famous movies. I bring this up because, in the late 1970s, this exchange almost definitely happened:

Warren Beatty: “I want to remake Heaven Can Wait and pretend to play QB for the Rams in it. Buy the rights, find me a writer and let’s make it.”

Studio Exec: “I don’t mind remaking that movie, it’s a classic — but you’re gonna play for the Rams in it? Are you sure?”

Warren Beatty: “Fuck it, I’m famous.”

The crucial point: You didn’t HAVE to put football in this movie. It’s a rich-guy movie, an afterlife movie, a Julie Christie Was Scorching Hot movie and (most important) a Warren Beatty Was A Huge Freaking Star movie. I like all of those things. Doesn’t make it a sports movie. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE

Ice Castles (1978)

We’re still trapped in the late 1970s. Let’s play a game I like to call “Guess The Premise!”

Premise no. 1: A figure skater grows up in England as the heir to the king’s throne. The royal family wants her to give up skating to concentrate on her future royal duties, only she keeps going (with help from her supportive boyfriend, Robby Benson). Eventually, she renounces the royal family and represents England at the 1980 Olympics, where she ends up dumping Robby, getting knocked up by a German bobsledder and becoming a national outcast. The end.

Premise no. 2: A potential champion figure skater hits her head, goes blind, then makes a comeback without telling anyone she can’t see (with help from her supportive boyfriend, Robby Benson). She crushes her first competition and gets a standing ovation, only when everyone throws flowers on the ice, she can’t see them, skates over them, keeps tripping and sags to the ice as everyone realizes she’s blind. That’s when Robby runs out and helps her skate off to another standing ovation. The end.

So … guess the premise! Which one was it? If you guessed “no. 1,” you’re wrong. Here, look.

Regardless, any movie that leaned that heavily on Melissa Manchester’s “Through the Eyes of Love” can’t be a sports movie. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE

The Karate Kid, Part III (1989)

The suffocating sexual tension between Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi almost turned this into a rom-dram. Almost. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE … BARELY

Love & Basketball (2000)

A well-written, well-directed, impeccably structured movie that nailed the basketball scenes, caught Sanaa Lathan at her sneaky-hot apex, found a good-looking male lead (Omar Epps)26 to distract my future wife from noticing how much I loved Sanaa Lathan, and even had the characters aging in multiyear increments (a gimmick that always sucks me in). In other words, it’s the perfect date movie. Everything hinges on Lathan, who couldn’t get nominated despite carrying just about every scene. Do you know how hard that part was? She even saves the corny final basketball game — Lathan playing Epps for his heart, with Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Fool of Me” as the background music — because Sanaa Lathan is a goddess and she makes everything work. Double or nothin’.

Does it mean anything that “Love” comes before “Basketball” in the title? Not really — it’s a love story about two people who were bonded over the years by basketball, and Epps even tells Lathan, “All’s fair in love and basketball,” at one point. But the movie hits every rom-com/rom-dram convention (even if it’s subtle about it) — after all, our hero falls for the perfect mate, blows it, hits rock bottom, then true love saves him in the end.

Here’s the catch: You couldn’t replace basketball with anything else and have it work. It IS a basketball movie, just carefully cloaked as a rom-dram. Throw in the fact that the ending is one of the five greatest moments in WNBA history and … well … THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

Lucas (1986)

Wikipedia describes Lucas as an “American teen tragicomedy.” Isn’t everyone’s high school experience a tragicomedy? That’s why high school movie DNA almost always overpowers rom-com DNA: Look at all the John Hughes movies, Clueless, Can’t Buy Me Love, Mean Girls, Secret Admirer, 10 Things I Hate About You and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When it’s a sports movie set in high school, the sports DNA has a better chance of standing out — just ask Hoosiers, The Karate Kid, Remember the Titans and Varsity Blues.

And then there’s Lucasa high school nerd/bullying movie that features a fairly loaded-at-the-time cast (Charlie Sheen, Corey Haim, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Jeremy Piven and Winona Ryder). Haim played Lucas, a super-nerd who tries to play football to impress a girl — that leads to Lucas getting seriously injured during a game, then recovering in time to earn a varsity letterman’s jacket and a Defcon 2 slow-clap ending. I don’t know if Lucas was the Jackie Robinson of slow-clap movies, but it was definitely Larry Doby or Don Newcombe. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE

Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Coming on DVD and Blu-ray on October 7, and coming to airplanes and hotels sooner than that! (Sorry, I had to.)27 I better stop before Robert Lipsyte sends me an email with the subject heading, “NEED TO TALK.” THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

One on One (1977)

The 2012 NBA lockout didn’t have a lot of upside, but one unintended benefit was a whole new generation being treated to NBA TV’s frequent replays of One on One, starring Robby Benson as a heat check freshman hoopster named Henry Steele. Here’s the TV ad; I think it came out in 1895.

For whatever reason, Robby decides to play Henry as if he’s been brain-damaged in a bad car accident that we never saw, but it still works — especially the basketball scenes, the chills scene comeback game and this unexpectedly classic ending.

He’s like an edgier J.J. Barea, only if somebody struck Barea in the head with a two-by-four. So why isn’t this a flat-out hoops movie? Because they waste a significant chunk of time with Robby falling for his redheaded tutor, and also because “Love Conquers All” by Seals & Crofts is the song for the closing credits. Whatever. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

The Replacements (2000)

Here’s my 2002 review. The movie’s football DNA fought off the rom-com DNA, even if it gets hairy a couple of times. And the Tao of Keanu endures: “Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever.” THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

Rocky II (1979)

In my 2001 piece about the four Rocky movies (yes, I ignored the fifth one), I mentioned how slow Rocky II was … and that was right as we were becoming the Short Attention Span Generation and a full decade before we transformed into the No Attention Span Generation. If you ever want to make your life slow down, just keep watching the first 90 minutes of Rocky II over and over again. That section isn’t a sports movie, just a series of deleted scenes that AMC should banish from our lives forever. I always thought Adrian’s coma was symbolic of how the audience felt. And if this scene didn’t happen …

And this didn’t happen …

And the fight scene wasn’t an astonishing TWELVE MINUTES AND FIFTEEN SECONDS LONG (not counting the celebration) …

… then you could make a case that this was something other than a sports movie. But they happened. By the way, I’m fine with AMC chopping this down into a 30-minute movie for all subsequent Rocky marathons. Draw up the papers. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

Summer Catch (2001)

I once spent over 2,700 words reviewing Summer Catch. Not a humblebrag. Repeat: NOT a humblebrag. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

Teen Wolf (1985)

Um … what category did we decide on for high school basketball rom-com werewolf movies? I can’t remember. (Thinking.) Oh yeah — if your main character becomes the BMOC in high school, loses his sense of self and has his relationships affected in the process, you just made a high school movie and everything else is cream cheese. Long live Coach Finstock. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE

Varsity Blues (1999)
Vision Quest (1985)

Two sports movies posing as high school movies. Blues never wanted to be anything other than an unapologetically raunchy, comically unrealistic, undeniably entertaining movie about Texas high school football. It’s like Friday Night Lights after four beers and a shot of tequila.28 It also inadvertently foreshadowed the NFL’s concussion crisis (yup, Billy Bob’s story line), created the phrase “whipped cream body sundae” and taught us that stripping can bring a teacher CLOSER to her students. It’s the footballiest of football movies. And in case you were wondering, the Beek still don’t want … your life.

Meanwhile, the surprisingly undated Vision Quest stars Matthew Modine as Louden Swain, who wants to accomplish one great thing during his senior year. That great thing? Dropping two weight classes to wrestle this guy …

That’s Brian Shute, an unbeatable champ at 168 from another school. So that becomes Louden’s “vision quest.” There’s a romance subplot with Linda Fiorentino that never overshadows the sports movie structure, along with multiple training scenes, multiple chills scenes, one inspiring speech, good ’80s music and a traditional “big game” ending. And Elmo’s speech was off the charts — one of my favorites in any sports movie.

It ain’t the six minutes … it’s what happens in that six minutes.

So good. Let’s watch Louden climb the pegs again. Where’s John Waite? John Waite — get in here!


White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

It’s a rom-com that pretends to be a basketball movie, only they blew two of the three casting decisions: Rosie Perez was insufferable and Wesley Snipes couldn’t play hoops to save his life. I wrote this in 2008: “every hoops scene [with Snipes] physically pained me; really, nobody could stop this 5-foot-6 guy who dribbles over his ear, shoots line-drive jumpers and does the same crossover move every time? He’s so bad that every time it’s showing on Encore or TNT, I keep waiting for Mike Dunleavy to sign him during the closing credits.” A dated Dunleavy drive-by joke! Let’s do this! On cable, Snipes’s basketball game gets 2.4 percent worse every year.

The good news: Woody Harrelson’s pickup chops remain waaaaaaaaaay up there (very Marco Belinelli–ish) and there are just enough quality hoop scenes in here to save us from Rom-comville. It’s definitely a BASKETBALL movie … it’s just saddled with Snipes’s high dribble and a few too many excruciating Perez moments. If only Denzel had taken that Snipes part. If only. THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

Without further ado, let’s tackle the four toughest calls of the column.

Tin Cup (1996)

It’s definitely a golf movie because Costner crushes the golf scenes and the general vibe of being a golfer, as does Don Johnson (a fun foil/villain), and the climactic tournament feels like it happened live on CBS (and may have). Everything about Tin Cup screams GOLF. You can’t remove golf and replace it with anything else.

On the other hand, it’s definitely a rom-com — the heart of the movie is Roy McAvoy’s relationship with Rene Russo’s sports psychologist, and how she affects his golf game (for the better). And the climax requires an unrealistic leap of faith: You have to buy that Roy McAvoy, needing only a par to win the U.S. Open, keeps stubbornly trying to reach the par-5 on 18 in two and splashes himself out of the top 10. When I saw it in the theater, that wrinkle infuriated me. Even Greg Norman wouldn’t have done that! Who wouldn’t just go for the par???? Upon repeated rewatchings, it’s not nearly as senseless as it felt that first time. It’s certainly more memorable than a typical woo-hoo-he-did-it! ending. And yeah — it’s a total chills scene.

Also, I loved Russo’s closing line after Roy sinks that final shot: “No one’s going to remember the Open 10 years from now, who won, who lost … but they’ll remember your 12! My God, Roy, it was … well, it’s immortal!”

That’s a fun concept for a sports movie, and for sports in general: In a 2009 mailbag, I started the Roy McAvoy Hall of Fame for “Meaningless Sporting Events That Somehow Managed to Become Immortal” and inducted this inaugural class: the Bulls-Celtics 2009 playoff series, the Ward-Gatti Trilogy, the 1976 ABA Dunk Contest, Lyle-Foreman I, Connors-Krickstein at the ’91 U.S. Open, the UConn-Syracuse six-OT game, Willis Reed fighting the entire 1966-67 Lakers team (and winning), the Drago-Balboa fight in Russia, the final day of the 1977-78 NBA scoring race (Thompson with 73, Gervin with 63), Bo Jackson bowling over Brian Bosworth, the second Piper’s Pit with Jimmy Snuka and, of course, McAvoy’s 12. Only a sports movie gets you thinking about stuff like that … right? THE VERDICT: SPORTS MOVIE

For Love of the Game (1999)

Costner again. This time, he made a nuanced baseball movie that’s trapped under the boulder of a gigantic rom-com shaped like Kelly Preston’s head. Boy, there are some splendid baseball pieces in here: Yankee Stadium, Vin Scully’s play-by-play, Detroit’s increasingly excited bench chatter, Billy’s relationship with his old slugging teammate who jumped to the Yanks, the signed-baseball retirement scene (a personal favorite), John C. Reilly’s “We don’t stink right now” speech, the aforementioned Mickey Hart catch, Costner belatedly realizing that nobody on the Yanks has gotten on base yet, or even the 27th out itself. That’s some of the best baseball movie stuff ever filmed … and it’s wasted because Preston murders every scene she’s in.

I don’t know if it’s the character, the actress, the writing or all three, but man … she’s like a one-woman movie momentum tsunami. For years, I’ve been pushing for a director’s cut release that chops 90 percent of the Preston scenes — just enough so it doesn’t derail the film — and concentrates solely on Billy Chapel’s perfect-game quest. That was Costner’s last great sports movie role. I love Billy Chapel. We blew it. Dammit. I want to send Costner a signed baseball that says,


Make another f’n cut, please. Just do it. Get Mrs. Travolta out. Tell them I’m done watching her. She sucks. For love of the sports movie genre …

Bill Simmons


Jerry Maguire (1996)

Cameron Crowe’s classic features iconic performances by Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. (as Rod Tidwell, the best-written and best-executed athlete character in sports movie history), as well as a good-natured skewering of sports agents and agencies in general. All the supplemental sports industry characters work splendidly — Cush the idiot QB, Cush’s conniving family, the hatefully smarmy Bob Sugar, Jerry’s ambitious fiancée (Preston in a much more tolerable role), Arizona’s GM (Glenn Frey!), Rod’s jealous brother and crazy wife, Roy Firestone’s cameo, you name it.29

But it’s also an exceptional rom-com, because Dorothy Boyd (played by Renée Zellweger) ranks way up there on the “Most Likable Rom-Com Characters” list. It’s Cruise’s movie, and you’re supposed to like Cruise … and yet you’re rooting for Dorothy the entire time. I never totally cared if it worked out for Jerry, but Dorothy and J-Lip? That’s who I cared about. So even if scenes like “You had me at hello” and “You complete me” make no sense in a sports movie, if you’re treating it like it’s a Jerry-needs-to-come-through-for-Dorothy movie, they make sense.

So is it a sports movie? No, and here’s why — he could have been a movie agent and IT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE EXACT SAME MOVIE.

Think about it. Cruise’s sports agency could have been CAA. Rod Tidwell could have been an up-and-coming actor or rapper looking for a big break. Cush could have been a young Leo type, the no-doubt-about-it A-lister pretending that he’s not milking the system even though he is. And so on and so on. Writer-director Cameron Crowe crushed the sports stuff, only the heart of the movie had nothing to do about sports. It’s about love and relationships. Rod making Jerry scream “Show me the money!” into the telephone isn’t any different from Dorothy telling Jerry that he had her at hello. They’re both trying to connect with him, and they both want to keep believing in him. He’s some fucked-up guy who, for whatever reason, they can’t stop trusting. And that’s the movie.

You could make a really good case that it’s the best rom-com ever made. So what if Rod Tidwell is the best-written athlete character in Hollywood history? It’s still a rom-com. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE

Bull Durham

Maybe we should name that blurry line between sports movies and rom-coms “The Costner Line.” Nobody has straddled the date movie world better, if only because the charismatic Costner seemed like a good guy. Women loved him. Men wanted to hang out with him. What else do you need? Nobody ever bought him as a serial killer, or a hit man, or a warrior in a postapocalyptic world. We wanted Costner hanging on with a minor league team, trying to make the PGA Tour, protecting Whitney Houston, battling a brain aneurysm as he tried to finish a grueling bike race, or driving to Boston on a whim to find Moonlight Graham. We wanted Costner giving speeches like this one.

Yup, he just crushed a speech that started out, “I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back.” You didn’t even notice how dreadful that was because Costner is so terrific as Crash. Really, really good. Likable, charming, acts like a catcher, swings like a slugger, nails every nuance you’d want from that part. In fact, he’s so good that he hides the movie’s most glaring flaw: Tim Robbins as Nuke LaLoosh, the team’s can’t-miss fireballing prospect who latches on to Crash as a mentor, even as they’re competing for the same woman (Susan Sarandon’s Annie, who’s been around the block and then some). That’s all fine and dandy except … well … Tim Robbins can’t throw a baseball.

Like, he can’t throw a baseball.

As in, he looks ridiculous every time he throws a baseball.

Supposedly Robbins threw out his arm in the first week of filming; unless he needed Tommy John surgery and gamely fought through it for two months, I don’t see how this is an excuse. You either know how to throw a baseball or you don’t. For two solid hours, I’m supposed to believe that this kid is headed to The Show because he can throw over 100 miles an hour, and meanwhile, he looks like he’s pitching with a torn rotator cuff. What???? Twenty-six years later, I still don’t understand how we just glossed over this problem. Here’s one of Bull Durham’s best scenes — Robbins throws a pitch at the 1:00 mark.

If you’re still buying Tim Robbins as Nuke LaLoosh in 2014, then you probably thought Costner’s dad in Field of Dreams had a cannon arm. Sure, this is an inventive movie that nailed so many minor league baseball nuances (the lingo, the rhythm, the fans, etc.) and wasn’t afraid to be candid and raunchy (a riskier move in 1988). But why does it really work? Because it caught Peak Costner and Peak Sarandon, two A-list stars at the top of their games. They’re great in the movie and they’re great together. You somehow never hold it against Sarandon that she’s a tramp who sleeps with one new player every season, or that she’s juggling Robbins and Costner and doing everything short of having a threesome with them. And you don’t mind that the last quarter of the movie degenerates into a flat-out love story worthy of the 10,275 times Lifetime has aired this thing.

Really, it’s more of a rom-com than a baseball movie — just like Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Wedding Planner and My Best Friend’s Wedding were more rom-coms than wedding movies (even if weddings were absolutely essential to all three movies). It’s the toughest call of the column … but when you don’t care that your star pitcher has a noodle arm, maybe you wanted to be a rom-com all along. THE VERDICT: NOT A SPORTS MOVIE. 

grantland_feed July 25 2014, 16:58

No Brain, No Gain



Lovers of Scarlett Johansson, savor the opening minutes of Lucy. She’s sucking on a straw outside a bank in Taipei. Her haircut is short but big and curly and entrancingly blonde. The mischief in her eyes matches the tinge of trouble in her low, rich voice. The jungle cat–print jacket seals the deal. She looks like everybody Madonna has ever played in a movie — but at the same time. The bozo boyfriend she’s talking to really wants her to help him out, but she’s like, “I totally have to study,” and he’s like, “Come on, babe. Help me out and take this briefcase in there.” They’re kind of playing. They’re kind of not. Suddenly, he gets weird on her and cuffs her to the case, causing Lucy to flash a look of terrible shock.

Yada yada yada: Lucy’s a skittish drug mule for Korean gangsters. When the drug leaks into her system, she goes from using 10 percent of her brain, like the rest of us, to using all of it. Some chick studying abroad becomes the Future of Civilization. Or whatever it is Luc Besson is going for with this. Lucy’s rising intelligence is inversely proportional to the movie’s. But its stupidity has the kick you expect from the man who’s been writing and producing Taken movies. For once, Morgan Freeman is not the voice of omniscience. He’s a baffled scientist whose tens of thousands of pages of research Lucy read in an instant. She’s on her way to his Paris lab, and she’s dragging with her a bewildered cop (Amr Waked), a few of his men, and all of those gangsters led by Choi Min-sik. Besson is having some queasy fun. Isn’t this just a white lady running from a bunch of crazy Asians? Once, the movie has an uncomprehending Lucy shoot a Taiwanese guy for comedy.

Much of the reason the opening scenes are so good has to do with a loose, breezy Johansson’s dominating performance. Hearing that voice come from that face, seeing her playing a person, revved me up. I didn’t know whether to dab my eyes or fasten my seat belt: You mean she’s not going to be software or a man-killing seductress-alien? Thank you, Luc Besson. But it doesn’t take long for the light in Johansson’s eyes to dim and an action film to take her over. The more brilliant — and telepathic, telekinetic, and daring, like a 1970s stunt driver  she becomes, the less human she is.

There’s no malice in Besson’s use of Johansson. He can be a zigzagging, amusing feminist director, building spectacles around everyone from Anne Parillaud and Milla Jovovich (each of whom were at one point his wife) to Michelle Yeoh as the shut-away Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi to Michelle Pfeiffer as the head of nuclear family of assassins. He likes his idea of female power, which is like male power but in sleeveless tops. One letter separates Lucy’s name from Besson’s. You just have to ignore the double meaning of that letter “y.”

What you feel from Besson to Johansson is an absurd love. She fascinates him just as deeply as she does Spike Jonze in Her and Jonathan Glazer in Under the Skin. Taken together, the films constitute some kind of investigation of her essence and sexuality, of the fantasy her stardom presents. But she seems very much a partner in that exploration, not a victim of it. All the probing is making her stronger as a performer. It’s not mere carnality she projects in these movies, it’s variations on wonder: What can I do as an alien life-form pretending to be a beautiful woman? What can I do with a role that denies me physical form? 

Johansson does more than experiment in these movies. She’s terrific in all three. It’s just curious to me that filmmakers as different as Besson, Glazer, and Jonze are interested in her as something other than human, something beyond it. And in The Island, she was a clone for Michael Bay! At the risk of indelicacy, you wonder what female directors would see in Johansson at this point. It’s not as if she hasn’t been good as a civilian or what passes for one. I liked her as Black Widow for Marvel, and thought her zookeeper in Cameron Crowe’s last movie, We Bought a Zoo, showed her talent starting to crest. In Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, Johansson seemed to be working at a sharp, new angle. But what might she and Sofia Coppola achieve in a rematch? Where would the stress fall on her range?

Lucy doesn’t give Johansson much to do as an actor. Touchingly, Besson seems to think that in order to give her all the power in the world he has to take away her skill. When the drug starts to do funny things to Lucy on an airplane, Besson even risks taking away her beauty, not to punish her but to punish us. That’s temporary. For most of the film’s back half, Johansson can be seen waving her arms like wands and sitting perfectly still while wearing a little black dress. Holding on to that body feels like an act of willful sentimentality.

What’s wrong with this movie? It’s a cut above this spring’s Transcendence, in which the Internet is infected with the Johnny Depp virus. That movie believed it was saying something, but it was too wimpy to take its point about overconnectivity to some exciting or disturbing extreme. It had Freeman in the same role but no vision. Besson has too many visions. This movie worries that humanity is wasting its potential, which is a bizarre fear for a movie that has this many nonsensical shootouts. But that’s what on Besson’s mind: the Big Bang and bang-bang.

It’s simultaneously fun and extremely boring, up to something provocative and yet the same old, same old. Still, some of that same old is fun. How many directors have left one of the five-star hotels on the Rue de Rivoli and thought what’s been missing for all of these centuries is a car chase through the famous arcades? Well, Besson’s gone and done it. Subtlety is his kryptonite. Here and there he spikes the action with shots from the animal kingdom: mice stepping onto a cheesed trap, a cheetah trotting off with an antelope dangling between its fangs. In one of the opening shots, prehistoric man is crouched by a lake, waiting perhaps for a plunk from the bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The movie rumbles through time and space, sending dinosaurs, pyramids, and nebulae toward Johansson and us. There’s both amazement in these shots and braggadocio. It’s as if Besson sat through a half-hour of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, hit fast-forward, and thought, I can do that but with drugs and guns and car chases. Malick gave us gaseous galactic emissions. Besson is farting.


There’s a great movie in Brett Ratner.

[Stops typing. Backs away from computer. Braces for strike of lightning. Nothing? Resumes.]

He might never allow himself to make it. He might not even believe he can. (He might think After the Sunset and The Family Man already are great.) But you look at the battle scenes in Hercules, and after wondering why you’re watching yet another of these sequences in which hundreds of real and digitized fighters run toward each other, you notice how navigable they are. Most of the cutting keeps the action matched so that when a character tackles an extra, you can follow the approach, impact, and thud. The clubbing and stabbing and leaping: It’s all senseless, yes, but it’s assembled in a way that makes sense, too. Working with the cinematographer Dante Spinotti for the ninth time, Ratner even shoots the scenes in daylight, which adds a touch of honesty to the action.

Continuity and clarity are absurd things to single out for praise. In the homes of most directors, even so-so ones, that’s called filmmaking. But even in something as run-of-the-mill as this, the crispness of some of the staging is impressive. It’s a crispness that eludes men like Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson. Even so, until the campy action-movie scenes in the last 25 minutes, I was bored — and honestly, no matter how well put together one of those melees is, if you’ve seen one, you’re all set.

This Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is not a persecuted demigod (most of his 12 labors have been completed) but a woebegone warrior “from the streets of Athens.” Rumor has it that his wife and children were slain by his own hand. Obviously, the rumors will be dispelled. In the meantime, he’s moonlighting with a band of five acolytes (including Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell), roving Thrace while doing mercenary work for sacks of gold. It sounds like the gist of a bad 1980s show on today’s Starz. (Coming this winter: The Slay Team!) In this episode, a woman named Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) comes to Hercules on behalf of her father, Lord Cotys (John Hurt). He needs his agrarian subjects trained for war against Thrace. Hercules and the acolytes agree to help, and together they create a farmy. But the plot twists, and Hercules finds himself in chains, at which point the movie’s energy picks up along with its sense of abandon.

Presumably, the credited screenwriters (Ryan J. Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos) will hear that the last quarter is livelier than the first three and say they were building toward that last act. What they’ve built is basically as strong as a coat of paint. And yet, they should be a little proud of this greasy script. They’ve conflated Greek history and mythology — or adapted Steve Moore and Admira Wijaya’s graphic novel that did. The writing has amusing lines for McShane and Sewell and a bitchy part for Joseph Fiennes, as the King of Athens, to tip into Cleopatra. That last scene is unsurprising, but it’s also fun. There just isn’t enough of that.

Really, Hercules wastes Johnson. He’s got the right body for the role (redonkulous) but deploys the wrong temperament: He’s too passive, too agreeable. You don’t want to hear Johnson with lines like “never retreat” and “advaaaaaaaaaance,” not when Hurt, Sewell, McShane, Fiennes, and Peter Mullan, as a shady general, are using toothpicks to pluck scenery from between their teeth. Johnson wears a brunette wig and makeup that doesn’t always completely hide his body art. (What was I saying about continuity?) He’s been given one anachronistic line of foul language, and, whether or not it was in the graphic novel, it seems included because the U.K. actors had all the fun stuff to say.

This feels like something Johnson might have done 12 years ago, when he was still wrestling full-time as the Rock but wanted to bank on his movie-star charisma. That smile of his is great in the ring. It’s right up there with Julia Roberts’s. In films, though, it’s often more like a grimace. The point of leaving the Rock behind was to keep Johnson out of stuff like this and to take more risks, like the juiced-up idiot crook he played in Pain & Gain. We know he can shove a towering statue onto a fleet of men. For years, that’s basically what he did for Vince McMahon. Of course, he also needs a hit, and Hercules should do it. But you leave underwhelmed. He, and Ratner, should be doing more than pushing over fake marble. They should be pushing themselves. 

gmpuzzles July 25 2014, 16:20

Basement Skyscraper Sudoku by Prasanna Seshadri



Sudoku by Prasanna Seshadri


Theme: Sudoku GP Round 7, plus two hidden themes related to 7
(Note: this puzzle was originally created for the Sudoku Grand Prix but after testing was judged too hard and too puzzle-based for the competition. It is an excellent puzzle, and we are proud to showcase it here.)

Author/Opus: This is the 40th puzzle from our contributing puzzlemaster Prasanna Seshadri.

Rules: Standard Sudoku rules. Also, standard Skyscrapers rules. Additionally, the cells in grey are “underground” and cannot be seen by any of the outside skyscraper clues (think of them as starting with a negative sign if necessary). As an example, the 3 on the left of row 2 refers only to seeing three buildings in columns 2 through 9, even if there is a 9 in column 1 as that 9 cannot be seen.

Answer String: Enter the 1st row from left to right, followed by a comma, followed by the 5th row from left to right.

Time Standards (highlight to view): Grandmaster = 7:00, Master = 10:00, Expert = 20:00

Note: Follow this link for our first Basement Skyscraper Sudoku. Follow this link for other less common variations of Sudoku and this link for classic Sudoku. If you are new to this puzzle type, here are our easiest Sudoku to get started on.

The post Basement Skyscraper Sudoku by Prasanna Seshadri appeared first on The Art of Puzzles.

freak_onomics July 25 2014, 13:48

สมัคร GClub “ฮูเปีย” กร้าวไม่หวั่นชนผีประเดิม ชปล.



สมัคร GClub

สมัคร GClub ซามี ฮูเปีย เทรนเนอร์วัยหนุ่มชาวฟินแลนด์ ประกาศกร้าวนักเตะ ไบเออร์ เลเวอร์คูเซน ไม่มีทีท่าหวาดกลัวแต่อย่างใด ยามยกพลเยือน แมนเชสเตอร์ ยูไนเต็ด ในศึก ยูฟา แชมเปียนส์ ลีก รอบแบ่งกลุ่ม คืนวันอังคารที่ 17 กันยายนนี้

สมัครคาสิโน “ห้างขายยา” ออดสตาร์ทศึก บุนเดสลีกา เยอรมัน ฤดูกาล 2013-14 เก็บ 12 แต้ม จาก 5 นัด (ชนะ 4 แพ้ 1) ยึดอันดับ 3 ของตาราง ก่อนคืนสังเวียน ยูฟา แชมเปียนส์ ลีก นับตั้งแต่ถูก บาร์เซโลนา ถล่มแบบยับเยิน 7-1 เมื่อฤดูกาล 2011-12

อดีตเซ็นเตอร์แบ็ก ลิเวอร์พูล กล่าว “แมนฯ ยูไนเต็ด เป็นสโมสรที่ยิ่งใหญ่ พวกเขาคว้าแชมป์มากมายตลอด 10 ปีล่าสุด ผมจะไม่ได้มาเพิ่อเป็นผู้แพ้ มิฉะนั้นเราอาจส่งผู้เล่นรุ่นอายุไม่เกิน 19 ปี ลงสนาม เราไม่ควรตกอยู่ในความหวาดกลัว ผมหวังว่าลูกทีมจะไม่ต้องการมองรอบๆ สนามราคาแพง และเข้าแถวขอลายเซ็น เวย์น รูนีย์”

กุนซือวัย 39 ปี ยังรำลึกอดีตเกี่ยวกับเกมสุดท้าย ณ “โรงละครแห่งความฝัน” เมื่อเดือนมีนาคม 2009 ซึ่ง ลิเวอร์พูล บุกมาถล่ม แชมป์ลีกสูงสุดเมืองผู้ดี 20 สมัย 4-1 เป็นหนึ่งในแมตช์แห่งความทรงจำ ซึ่งเป็นครั้งสถุดท้ายที่ตนสวมยูนิฟอร์ม “หงส์แดง” ครบ 90 นาที

The post สมัคร GClub “ฮูเปีย” กร้าวไม่หวั่นชนผีประเดิม ชปล. appeared first on Casino Online and Sports Betting.

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